Shoots among the shells: gardening in War-time

Imagine, for a second, a battlefield. You probably pictured a stark, bare desert, a bald and muddy field or an unkempt jungle; it is unlikely that neatly cultivated, colourful plants featured anywhere within your mental picture. That is because usually in wartime, when people’s minds are full of duty and worry, pleasure gardens are one of the first signs of civilisation to go. True, the Women’s Land Army helped in the farms in the two World Wars, and civilians in the Second World War were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’, but these efforts focussed on food production rather than beauty. Flowers have traditionally been left to the invalids or mentally wounded.

Or have they? The Telegraph reported on 21/09/2014 that a new show at London’s Garden Museum will display flowers carefully pressed and posted to his wife by Private George Marr from the Front Line of the Greek Campaign in World War One, pictures of Captain John Laird Gallwey Irvine of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regiment working on his garden behind a trench, and letters and images describing how the interned British civilians at Ruhleben camp, near Berlin, buried their troubles by forming  a horticultural society and creating vast beds of flowers and ornamental plants.

Searching through our archives, we found details of these and other examples of wartime gardening. Take this account from ‘The R.A.S.C. Review for Xmas, 1944’ of the activities of Sergeant Eric G. Pitt of the British Expeditionary Force in WWII, posted to the Middle East, who obtained water from the local Naafi Mineral Water Factory to water his plants:

“The magic of it is that, only two years ago, this too was a desert. But to a man with the ingenuity and landscape-gardening experience of Sergeant Pitt, it provided no real difficulties and awarded his leisure hours with a hobby that has brought pleasure to many a hundred sand-weary eyes. Mud – cartloads of it – were brought from a canal two miles away, and filled in to the garden excavations to a depth of 6 ft. Seedlings and plants were procured from Cairo: rock and brickwork began to take shape… nobody knows where the butterflies came from.”

Another account, from ‘The Illustrated War News, Part 58, Sept 15, 1915’, also discusses a trench garden- possibly the same one created by Captain John Laird Gallwey Irvine, though it doesn’t specify beyond the fact that it is at the Front in Flanders- and displays a photograph:

“For a while there is peace in this trench at the Front, and we see our soldiers listening to a gramophone and smoking cigarettes, in a garden with the trench equivalent of herbaceous borders, a neatly put-together footpath of wood, a crude summer house, albeit the door and windows are protected by wire and the roof by sandbags.”

The men who were given the chance to enjoy a garden in the thick of the fighting were fortunate indeed; many were not so lucky, and even Captain Irvine died in action three months after the exhibit photo was taken, on 8th July 1915, aged 26. In many cases, plants and flowers from home were brought by grief-stricken families to decorate the graves of loved-ones. ‘20 Years After: the Battlefields of 1914-18 Then and Now, Supplementary Volume’ tells of one woman’s pilgrimage to Gallipoli in Turkey in 1926:

“At Pink Farm, hard by a maze of crumbled trenches under Achi Baba, the Turks’ commanding hill, our eldest woman pilgrim found the grave of her officer son of the 5th Ghurkhas, and placed there a sprig of lavender from the garden he had loved and a laurel wreath of bronze, encircling the badge of his regiment.”

It was as if such mourners hoped to impart some sense of familiarity to their sons, buried far from their homes, by bringing them a reminder a space where they had felt at peace in life. In this way, the bringers themselves found comfort.

In a world of fearful weapons, stark battlefields and unfamiliarity, soldiers, prisoners, polititians and invalids alike found comfort in gardens for same reasons those labours of love seemed so incongruous with their surroundings. They were a reminder that, in the midst of such destruction, colour, tranquillity and new life could still exist; in other words, a reminder of everything the men were fighting to preserve or restore.

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