Thursday, 15 December 2016


Sir Hugh Gladstone - Scottish landowner who collated research on  the impact of war on birds

RESEARCH on the impact of warfare on birds is extremely limited - not surprising since the battlefield is no place for ornithologists. 

Possibly the  most important study, Bird and The War, was published in  1919 by Hugh Steuart Gladstone, an old Etonian and graduate of Cambridge University whose home was Capenoch House, a major country house at Penpont in Dumfriesshire where, as a keen ornithologist, he had earlier penned  Birds of Dumfriesshire (1910).

Sir Hugh (he was knighted in 1941) served during  the Second Boer War (1900-02) with  the King's Own Scottish Borderers whom he rejoined, aged 37, as Captain on the outbreak of the First World War and was mentioned in Dispatches. However, he later moved to an administrative role for the rest of the war with the General Staff in the War Office.

Sir Hugh, who was Lord Lieutenant of Dumfries between 1946 and 1949 compiled   Bird and The War on the basis of extensive newspaper and magazine cuttings of eyewitness report from the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. Below is the first of a series of abbreviated extracts. 
Sir Hugh's book - published in 1919
It is difficult to sum up the effect of the battle on the Western Front on birds. 

Though bird life has been described as almost normal in the artillery area and up to within a short distance of the trenches, many species must have been banished from areas which had
been devastated by the effects of shellfire.

Very few of the familiar garden birds still clung to the flattened villlages, and the house sparrow seemed to be the only bird that felt thoroughly at home.

In the fields, the ordinary birds of the season were plentiful and unconcerned, and, when the summer migrants arrived, they returned to their old haunts in the half-felled orchards and the ruined houses and nested quite happily.

In times of peace, birds have been known to frequent noisy places with marvellous persistency.

For instance, it is on record that a pied wagtail remained on her nest, built under a railway over which trains passed almost hourly, without deserting it, and Charles Waterton was of the opinion that birds would get used to every sound except that of the gun.

It is therefore remarkable that the outstanding feature of all the notes which I have collected is the unanimity with which all observers insist on the remarkable indifference displayed by
birds to the noise of battle.

At the beginning of the war. it was expected that the battlefronts would be deserted by all birds except those grim followers of war, the vulture, raven and hooded crow, but facts proved these expectations to  be entirely wrong.

In autumn and winter, birdlife is never so assertive as in spring and summer, and it is therefore natural that observations on birds in late 1914 should have been comparatively few. 

We have also to picture a landscape of shattered trees, and the ground so torn up by shells that there scarcely remained a single blade of grass.

With the return of spring in 1915, however, the increasing number of birds became a subject for comment in many a letter home, and, as one writer put it : ''He was a cynic who said only  the birds we see are birds of prey." 

With the approach of summer, an extraordinary plant growth was reported, doubtless due both to the complete pulverisation of the soil by mines and shell explosions and to the large quantities of nitrates and potash released from the explosives.
Coltsfoot and lesser celandine  made stars of gold of old shell holes of the previous year, and, as the season advanced, it would seem that nature was doing herutmost to heal the ugly scars of war.

The following letter gives a graphic description of the change of scenery: 

''Summer has disguised the desolation of the stricken land. 

"A few months ago all her wounds were lying open. The bare, stunted tree trunks gashed and broken; gaunt, shell-scarred walls and ruined buildings and everywhere the face of the earth torn and disfigured.

"Long lines of ditches - for a trench is no more than a deep ditch - winding tortuously here and there, crossing and recrossing. 

"Deep shell-holes full of muddy water, shattered carts and farm implements lying neglected. Everywhere stark desolation. 

"But now it is different. To go up the communication trenches is like a ramble down a country lane. 

"Tall grass and wild flowers have sprung up on the sides and parapets so thickly that they almost roof over the trench.

"In the neglected gardens of the ruined houses, the flowers still bloom. The birds are everywhere ". 

It appears that birds were possibly more numerous in Northern France and Flanders than before the war, and no-man's-land proved an attractive place, in spite of the noise and all
the dangers of artillery fire, for thousands of birds to nest and rear their young."

Nor must it be forgotten that the abnormal quantity of insects doubtless formed an attraction to insectivorous birds, and this is  particularly noticed as regards swallows, martins and swifts. 

An observer, in the neighbourhood of Peronne, wrote, in September, 1918, that the battlefields were so close that an evening stroll brought one to places desolate enoughto make one wonder whether life of any sort could still exist - yet the very desolation seemed to have had  its attraction.

In the course of a few weeks, it was possible to count nearly 60 different varieties of birds within
less than two miles of Peronne.

That birds were indifferent to the noise of battle is, as I have already said, the unanimous opinion of all observers. 

There can be no question that a considerable portion of the European avifauna experienced noise quite without precedent. 

There has been nothing like such gunfire in the world's history, not only for volume but also for

It is difficult to visualise a modern battlefield. 

The very ground quakes from the detonation of the monster guns. There are bursting shells, rolling screens of smoke, rifle bullets flying around as thick as clouds of locusts on the veldt, machine guns r-r-r-r-r-ripping in all directions.

Great multitudes of soldiers are at deadly grips in a battle line which is scores of miles long and many miles deep. 

Yet the effect on birdlife so far as can be judged , was singularly small, and birds in areas where the gunfire was hottest displayed remarkable ability in adapting themselves to conditions which in pre-war days would have been regarded as impossible.

On more than one occasion, the coming attack of poisonous gas was foretold to our soldiers by the birds who were the first to detect the noxious fumes, and they did not appear to have suffered from this vile weapon of destruction which was one of the hideous novelties of the war.

'' It was the birds," writes an eye-witness, who was at Ypres in the summer of 1918, 'that gave  the greatest surprise. 

"Probably Ypres has been more shelled than any other place, particularly as regards gas-shells. 

"It was inconceivable that any animal capable of leaving such an apparently inhospitable
and dangerous neighbourhood should remain, especially as the night was worse than the
day, for then our own guns added to the tremendous racket.

"The roar of guns was, to them, no more than thunder, and, when a shell fell nearby, it was only some new, if startling, natural phenomenon."

Possibly they became callous to the uproar of the fighting-line because they quickly realised that the destruction was not loosed upon themselves.

One opinion expressed was that birds preferred the noise of battle to the treacherous quiet of peace when the inhabitants of the countryside have plenty of time to hunt and otherwise annoy them. 

Dr Arthur Allan, of Cornell University, speaking at a meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union at Philadelphia in 1916, stated: "A doctor attached to an ambulance corps in France had counted 35 species of birds that had built nests in ruins of buildings and trenches abandoned by inhabitants and troops.

"Artillery fire, which had swept away entire sections of woods, failed to disturb the birds which happened to be building there, and numbers were seen actually building nests under fire. 

"The tree in which one of the birds was making a nest was entirely swept away by a shell, but a bird in a neighbouring tree went right on building." 

.There is a story of a tree in front of a dugout having been uprooted by a shell and thrown into a shell-hole. A small and terrified trembling but uninjured bird was discovered on its nest in the relocated  tree

The long-continued bombardment of Nieuport seemed to an eye-witness only to be an inducement and an incentive to the "feathered choirs".

The following is part of Mr. H. Perry Robinson's description of the terrific artillery prelude of
a British assault at  Ypres in June, 1917: ''The sun as it rose was invisible behind the bank of smoke, but it flushed the sky above with red. 

"It was a truly terrible dawn, most beautiful in its terror, and, if ever dawn did indeed come
up like thunder, it was this. 

"Then came the greatest miracle of all, for, with the rose flush in the sky, the whole bird chorus of morning came to life. 

"Never, surely, did birds sing so - blackbird and thrush, skylark, blackcap and willow warbler. 

"Most of the time their voices were, of course, inaudible, but, now and again in the intervals
of the shattering noise of the guns, their notes pealed up as if each bird were struck with
frenzy and was striving to shout down the guns.''

The above quotations from the observations of eye-witnesses illustrate the indifference of birds in general to the noise of battle.

NEXT: What happened to birds on the Western Front


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