Trees, symbols of the war-disabled

The ruined landscapes of the battlefront between 1914 and 1918 soon became deeply anchored in our collective memory. But did the people at that time acknowledge the upheaval the environment went through? 


During the conflict itself, soldiers sent their families photographs and postcards depicting the ravages of war. As soon as 1917, Michelin published his first guide of the battlefield in the Marne. A complete collection published since 1919 became a best-seller. Many “war-tourist” visiting the places took pictures that would leave a lasting impression… gigantic bomb holes, muddy trenches, bodies torn apart: did those images, now part of our collective psyche, reflect the concerns of people of that time ?

A characteristic of the First World War has been the use of a wide variety of unusual weapons and ammunition. Artillery went through an unprecedented development. On April 22, 1915 in Ypres, German troops used for the first time a chlorine-based toxic gaz.

Doctor Béliard, surgeon general of the 66th infantry regiment describes the horrors of this surprise attack: “Men were convulsing on the ground, vomiting, and spitting blood. Panic was extreme. We were suffocating in a mist of chlorine. As far as we could see, the sky was dull, with a strange and gloomy greenish hue.” This first attack marked the beginning of the poison-gas warfare. During the whole conflict, chemical weapons will take many forms: cylinders, shells, grenades… Gases will vary too: chlorine, phosgene, “Mustard gas”, arsine or chloropicrin.

Direct witnesses of the impact of these gases were many, but no one really pondered over their development in the environment. The dead and the poisoned rightfully were the prime concern of the soldiers… However, just as pictures and postcards did, texts describe the evolution of landscapes and nature on the front. Luc Malchair, one of the few experts of the Great War to combine history with natural science, has picked up for the magazine Fortiflora, some of the sentences written by soldiers physically exposed to the ravages made on the flora and fauna and more largely, on the landscapes of the front…

Trees in particular, standing like war-disabled, are the subjects of many comments. On August 20, 1914, Colonel Henry Charbonnel writes about the strange look of the trees along the Florenville-Tintigny road, between Rossignol and Breuvannes, two of the martyred village from the Belgian Ardennes: “ they were full of shrapnel holes, riddled in such a way that, on their northern face, no a square inch of bark was left.”

In Verdun, looking from the fort of Vaux, the Commandant Raynal describes the fields of funnel-shaped holes surrounding him: “I can clearly see the woods of Fumin, of Vaux, of the Chapitre, of the Caillette… The trees are scarce now, and have no single leaf left; their crippled and burnt trunks stand up miserably – and it is now end of May : the Germans have deleted springtime.”

The same sad statement is found under the pen of Henri Barbusse, winner of the ‘Prix Goncourt’ for his 1915 novel “Under fire”: “The tall bordering poplars are shivered and their trunks mangled. In one place the road is an enormous colonnade of trees destroyed. Then, marching with us on both sides, we see through the shadows ghostly dwarfs of trees, wide-cloven like spreading palms; botched and jumbled into round blocks or long strips; doubled upon themselves, as if they knelt.”

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