A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Cries from the heart for a land tortured by war

The miseries of the Western Front were exacerbated by environmental destruction on a barely comprehensible scale. Eleanor Rawling reflects on a week when two  British artists found ways of expressing the horror

Amid the horrors and discomforts of war, the foul-smelling mud, the perpetual noise and the ever-present fear of dying, there was another trauma that affected many soldiers in the First World War: the devastation of the natural landscape all around them. 

Ivor Gurney, a soldier with the 2nd/5th Gloucesters, wrote from near the front line at St Quentin on the Somme to his friend Marion Scott on 10 March 1917: “You cannot think how ghastly the battlefields look under a grey sky. Torn trees are the most terrible things I have ever seen. Absolute blight and curse is on the face of everything”.

Gurney was a talented young musician, just making his way as a composer at the Royal College of Music in London when the war broke out. Scott was the registrar there and a friend and mentor to the young Gurney, who was also beginning to write poetry. Gurney recognised that his inspiration lay in what he called his “springs of beauty”, the natural landscapes of the Gloucestershire countryside where he grew up.

In his music and his poetry, he expressed his sense of belonging and deep love for the high Cotswold hills, the wooded scarps and the softer lush landscapes of the Severn vale. These became the ideal places of memory, the touchstones of hidden happiness, that Gurney could cling to and enabled him to “hang on” to his identity amid the noise and terrors of war.

What distinguishes Gurney from most of the other war poets is his continual reference to these places of home, mentioning by name particular hills, rivers, woodlands and lanes. He saw echoes of Gloucestershire in the landscapes of Flanders and the Somme – the Cotswold spinnies evoked by a copse on a hill-slope near St Quentin (poem: “Near Vermand”); the dusky Severn meadows recalled at a regimental water dump (poem: “Crucifix Corner”); and his beloved Crickley Hill, brought to mind as he walked a country lane at Buire au Bois (poem: “Crickley Hill”). 

It is not surprising, then, that Gurney was appalled at the devastation of the land caused by the war in France. In that 10 March letter to Scott, Gurney had explained that “there is no verse for you but that is not to be wondered at! After a week or so perhaps…”

True to his word, 12 days later (22 March), he wrote again, this time enclosing a poem that he had just written. It was entitled “Trees”, and, in it, he explains the difficulty of remembering the Cotswold beech woods (“where Cooper’s stands by Cranham”) when confronted with the nightmare landscape of the Somme battlefield. The poem (as it appeared in the letter) is worth quoting in full:

The dead land oppressed me; I turned my thoughts away,

And went where hill  and meadow

Are shadowless and gay.

 

Where Coopers stands by Cranham,

And grey stone houses smile,

Where motion, joy-inspired,

Eats up the measured mile.

 

Beauty my feet stayed at last

Where green was most cool,

Trees worthy of all worship

I worshipped... then,  O fool,

 

Let my thoughts slide unwitting

To other, dreadful trees;

And found me standing,... staring

Sick of heart – at these!                                                               

An amended version of this poem was published in Gurney’s collection, Severn & Somme, in 1917.

Significantly, the artist, Paul Nash, who was serving further up the Western Front at Ypres, seemed similarly moved at much the same time. In a letter to his wife on 7 March 1917, Nash describes a wood on the way to the frontline trenches: “… in a wood passed through on our way up, a place with an evil name, pitted and pocked with shells the trees torn to shreds, often reeking with poison gas - a most desolate ruinous place two months back, today it was a vivid green; the most broken trees even had sprouted somewhere in the midst, from the depth of the wood’s bruised heart poured out the throbbing song of a nightingale. Ridiculous, mad incongruity!”

It was around this time, too, that Nash made the drawing – at a place known as Inverness Copse – that would form the basis of his celebrated painting, We Are Making A New World. He was invalided home in the summer of 1917 but returned to the front as an official war artist that November – in time to witness the aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele, which he described as “the blindest slaughter of a blind war”. By chance, it was at Passchendaele that Gurney was gassed on 12 September 1917, an event that resulted in his being sent “back to Blighty”, his war over. Severn and Somme, Gurney’s first collection of poetry, was published in November 1917 and another volume, War’s Embers, followed in 1919. Nash’s painting We Are Making A New World was completed, in oils, in 1918 and became one of the most celebrated images of the 1914-1918 conflict.

Today, Gurney’s reputation as a poet is growing, as a huge number of unpublished poems, written after his return to England in 1917, are now being discovered in the Gloucestershire archives. But a recent BBC 4 documentary (Ivor Gurney: the poet who loved the war) showed how Gurney’s homecoming was not an easy one.

Like many soldiers, he failed to find work or housing in the chaos of post-war Britain, the injuries and traumas of war affected his ability to settle back to civilian life and, in Gurney’s case, this was compounded by the return of the mental illness which had plagued him even before the war.

Gurney spent his last 15 years in a mental asylum far from Gloucestershire, but he did not stop writing, at least for the first five years. Many of his best war poems date from the early 1920s, but as he himself explained in one of them, “While I Write” (1925), war had told him “truth” and given him “right of maker” for Severn and Cotswold. His poetry had been shocked into life by the fact that he nearly lost his beloved Gloucestershire landscapes.

Whereas Gurney’s war experience finished when he was invalided out in September 1917, Paul Nash’s involvement as an official war artist grew, resulting in many of his most powerful oil paintings depicting more of the ruined countryside and almost surreal scenes of the impact of war. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Nash served again as an official war artist.

Ivor Gurney died in 1937 in Dartford Mental Asylum. His First World War poems are specific to the moment, recording the everyday experiences of war for the average soldier. But they also bear a deeper message about the human capacity for destruction of the natural environment, and about the wounding emotional and psychological effects this has on those involved and those left behind to view the ruins.

His message about the powerful and devastating impacts of mechanised warfare, drawn directly from his moment of horror at the trees, is one that was not only followed up by artists such as Nash, but is remarkably pertinent to our 21st century life. As Gurney reminds us in one of his best-known poems (“Yesterday Lost”), natural beauty is like “A sense of mornings, once seen, forever gone…”

Eleanor Rawling is author of “Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire; Exploring Poetry and Place” (The History Press 2011)

Quotations from Ivor Gurney’s letters and poems © The Ivor Gurney Estate

Tomorrow: Strike in the munitions factory

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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