John Lewis-Stempel (2016) Where Poppies Blow. The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War.

 

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John Lewis-Stempel’s Where Poppies Blow is a hotchpot of different things. That’s usually a criticism, but in this case this is the books strength. Pre-war England is the baseline, a kind of Arcadia to which the British soldier on the front’s mind often returns. Fuck off I say to that kind of crap. The majority of troops came from slum housing and if they were lucky enough to be in regular employments worked between 12 and 15 hours a day for 364 days a year and were considered old by the time they were thirty and ancient by the age of forty. Yet trenches that divided warring nations were a great leveller. An officer, which was a shorthand for a gentleman, and the working class, really were in it together and shared the same bit of dirt and while the former had it slightly easier with better rations, where more likely to end up dead or injured.  Britain, generally, was an animal loving nation, regardless of class.

The other great social leveller Robert Burn recognised in his poem ‘To a Louse’ was lice. ‘Lice observed neither rank nor class.’  A ‘cootie hunt’ was the creed of the trenches. Rats were also fair game, but this war the British soldiers lost. Rats outbred any attempts at controlling them and corpses galore to feed on they grew to the size of legend and treated the living and the dead with equal contempt. One of the positive effects of German gas attacks was it killed many of the rats, but they quickly recovered a decomposed foothold.  Fungal infections such as clostridium perfringes, ‘Trench foot’ sent 20 000 to hospital in the first winter of 1914-15 and this was combined with bacillius fustiformis helping to produce the ulcerating gingivitis ‘Trench Mouth’. Foot and mouth disease wasn’t confined to animals. A Great War for microbes.

Just under a million British army hospital admissions for sickness were made in 1918, with just under 10 000 deaths. At the end of the war 500 permanent cemeteries were created with 400 000 headstones. [Compare this to the over 27 million and upwards killed in the USSR to give you some idea of scale, or indeed, the almost 500 000 American troops sent overseas to Vietnam ostensibly to fight Communism in 1969].

At the end of the War To End All Wars the Animal War Museum’s plaque in Kilburn commemorated the 484 143 horses, mules, camels and bullocks, hundreds of dogs, carrier pigeons and other creatures that died working for the armed forces.

In contrast, 11th November 1918, 735 409 horses and mules and 56 287 camels were given their demob papers. Their fate, like the working class soldier, was to be put on the market. The book ends with a quote from Ford Madox Ford’s Parade End: ‘How are we to live? How are we to ever live?’

I prefer Burn’s version: To a Mouse:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominon

Has broken nature’s social union

And justifies that ill opinion

…But mousie, that art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Gang aft a’gley,

And lea’s us nought but grief and pain

For promised joy…