Life

Take on Nature: Animals and birds came to soldiers' minds in darkest hours of First World War

It is clear from the poetry of First World War soldiers that many found solace in remembering nature
Stephen Colton

FRANCIS Ledwidge, the poet from Co Meath who served in France and Flanders during the First World War, received news of the Easter Rising in Dublin and the executions of the leaders which followed, while recovering wounded in Manchester 1916.

Dejected, in response he wrote a poem in honour of his close friend and executed nationalist leader Thomas Mc Donagh. The first verse reads:

He shall not hear the bittern cry

In the wild sky, where he is lain,

Nor voices of the sweeter birds,

Above the wailing of the rain.

Ledwidge himself was killed in Flanders in July 1917.

In this year of centenary commemorations for the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, it is interesting to note how the poetic works of many participants and others from this period were often informed by a love of nature. It is evident that many in their darkest hour found solace in remembering the birds, animals and natural spaces, which helped frame some part of their past lives.

In Frank McGuinness's powerful play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme, central characters invoke the memory of special places from their homeland, minutes before they go ‘over the top' near the climax of the play. Craig remembers Lough Erne; Moore and Millen, from Coleraine say: "The Bann's fair jumping with salmon at the minute" and "In the summer the banks of the Bann are a second home''. Crawford remembers the Foyle and McIlwaine, not to be outdone says: "Well, the Lagan isn't bad either."

The Skylark (Alauda arvensis), a common resident bird of Irish uplands and farmland, features prominently in the writing of many infantry men and poets of the First World War. Known simply as lark, (fuiseog in Irish), the bird would also have been common above the fields of Europe during the war years.

Heavily streaked, it is particularly well known for its distinctive song, a continuous stream of warbling notes given while the bird is ascending up to a hundred metres overhead. Usually lasting for three or four minutes, the song can, during the breeding season, continue for up to 20 minutes.

The lark seems to have been a powerful symbol of the war which turned weary eyes upwards towards the sky, away from the squalor of the trenches. Perhaps the bird represented escape and helped transport men towards the fields of home.

War poet and artist Isaac Rosenberg, who died in 1918, wrote in his poem Returning, We Hear the Larks, about how resting soldiers are heartened by the song of a passing flock of larks above:

But hark! Joy-joy-strange joy

Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks

Music showering on our upturned list'ning faces.

Sergeant John Streets, another soldier to die in 1916 wrote of how on hearing a lark he

fled with the lark afar,

Unto the realms where the eternal are.

Canadian John McCrae, also a casualty in the First World War, wrote in his poem In Flanders Fields:

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

On the eve of his execution (May 2 1916), Rising leader and scholar Patrick Pearse wrote his last poem, The Wayfarer, in which he says:

My heart hath shaken with great joy

To see a leaping squirrel in a tree

Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk

Or little rabbits in a field at evening.

Finally, some reflective words from James Stephens:

Be green upon their graves, O happy Spring

For they were young and eager who are dead...

With eager life, be they remembered.

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