When we visit a former First World War battlefield, we often gaze upon a set of fields and woods punctuated by clustered dwellings. At first glance, nothing unusual. However, the strikingly well-maintained war cemeteries, which form a mosaic across that landscape, and the undulating contours where once there were trench lines or explosions, provide certain hints that – without having read anything about the Great War – “something momentous took place there.”
Looking deeper, much consideration has been given to the military units who fought on that battlescape; to the men and women who served, and those who were killed; to the devastation inflicted on the land from above and below; and to the material culture and archaeological evidence from that great turbulence. The constants intertwined with all of this are human livelihoods and the natural world that envelopes them. They were there before, and with some exceptions, they returned afterwards. Conflict is a narrow time-slice, but legacy is a continuum.
It was the extraordinary regenerative power of the flora which struck soldiers immediately after battles, as it did those who visited sites in 1919 and beyond. Whilst attached to the Imperial War Graves Commission, Arthur Hill of Kew Gardens summed-up this effect after visiting the Somme in 1917: “One summer with its flowers will cover most of the ruin that man can make.” John Masefield reiterated this sentiment in 1919, writing: “spring and summer have laid their healing hands upon those places since the fighting.”
The flora was modified by the wartime effects of explosions turning over the soil, weapons-related chemicals bleaching vegetation and contaminating the ground, and the transportation of alien seeds with supplies to the troops. Post-war intensification of agriculture brought its own observable effect: modifying the complement of plants which could survive and reducing the culturally important commemorative aesthetic through the decline of the ‘Bleuet de France’ cornflower, and to a lesser extent the ‘Flanders poppy’, as well as other formerly familiar species like the purple-blue flowered larkspur.
Plants are the principal adornments of many landscapes, adding distinctive architectures to the topography and shaping audio-visual perception. Often seen as benign or overlooked completely, plants are – and have always been – intimately linked with military conflict. A flora can dictate the strategy by which warfare is conducted and modify the morale of troops. It can cause specific dangers and it can be used to heal. The study of plants affected by or utilized during the course of military activity is called ‘polemobotany’.
Plants, war, people, and post-war cultural development are deeply intertwined. Yet, apart from two well-known flowers employed in remembrance, the plants have generally remained in the metaphorical shade until the 2014-2018 Centenary. The Centenary provided a previously-unrivalled opportunity for much wider exploration and inclusivity – of disciplines and of people and cultures. Let us hope that the Centenary is just the ‘end of the beginning’ for a wholistic understanding of conflict, past and present, and hopefully this will go some way to reducing such events in our future.
About the author– Dr James Wearnis an ecologist and historian, who undertakes research focusing on plants and conflict (polemobotany), especially with regard to the First World War.