Soldiers’ perspectives on nature

During WWI, battles on the western fronts so intensively devastated the soil that it turned it, in some places, into stone-like ground. According to researchers, notably geographers, volumes of earth moved by the fights are estimated to be as high as 80 to 2 000 cubic meters by hectare. 

Around Douaumont, 19/5/1916
Around Douaumont, 19/5/1916

Soldiers often described these ravaged sites in their stories, comparing the battlefields to lunar landscapes.

The surroundings [between Thiaumont and Fleury] are the setting of the worst battlefields of Verdun. At the forefront of ravines, still vaguely covered by scraggy woods, where trees were reduced to the state of poles, came the zone where grass still grew. Further along, no greenery was left, nothing but loose stones turned upside down and furrows of clay, ploughed two or three meters deep : a true lunar landscape…”, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, letter from August 23, 1916.

As the cannons still roared, soldiers marvelled at how Nature obstinately came back to life. In the soil churned-up by the shells, thousands of poppies bloomed.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row”: the opening lines of the famous poem written by Canadian surgeon and soldier Lt-Col John McCrae, published on 8 December 1915, state the relationship between poppies and battlefields.

The poppy has since then become the symbol of WWI remembrance. To those seeing it grow, the bright red colour of this fragile flower reminded them of the bloodshed during the battles as much as life’s obstinacy to prevail.

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