Sunday, 18 December 2016


In this second extract from Birds and The War, author Hugh Gladstone shares his research on the impact on a range of species from nightingales to owls as witnessed by soldiers who served on the Western Front.  Contrary to what might have been expected in advance of such fearsome hostilities, many birds not only survived but even flourished.

A blackbird reared its brood in a nest which had been built in a hedge only 20 yards from two artillery  guns. 

The birds, old and young, never seemed to mind the firing of the guns, which shattered glass in windows and tore the tiles off houses 50 yards away.

Another blackbird's nest, with three chicks in it, was discovered  in a captured village which had been within a former German front line. 

The mother bird must have sat on its nest during the whole of the preliminary bombardment and the subsequent terrific fighting -  everything around the nest had been mashed to atoms.

The day after the Wytschaete Ridge had been taken (June 7, 1917), another  blackbird
was found sitting on a nest containing five fledglings.

 It had been built about three feet from the ground in a communication trench leading to, and about 15 yards from, the original German line.

A big mine had been exploded within 120 yards of the spot, making a crater large enough to accommodate a good-sized house, and there were also shell-holes within but a few yards of the nest.

On Whit Sunday, 1918, the trenches round about a willow, in which a blackbird had its nest,
were smartly shelled  for an hour or more. 

The male's  evensong was, how ever, unimpaired, and seemed, if anything, more melodious. 

A robin was observed to perch persistently upon the bayonet of a French soldier, and another  chose a dug-out for its nesting-place where it reared its brood of five.

A robin's nest was discovered in an old shell-case half concealed among the ivy covering a ruined shed.

Nightingales were frequently heard during the intervals of a night's bombardment - they even sang while monster shells were bursting in a town eight miles from the firing-line.

A brood of young nightingales was hatched,on the day of the heaviest Hooge bombardment, on the lip of the first-line.

At 3 am on May 13, 1915, in the garden of a chateau, a nightingale began to sing. Half an hour afterwards, German shells were rained upon the garden incessantly throughout the day.  

Until midday, the bird continued to sing  without a pause where the shells fell thickest. Next morning he started again as cheerily as ever.

A wiring party, forced to seek refuge in their front-line trench by a sharp burst of artillery fire lasting five minutes, were surprised, 10 minutes afterwards, to hear the sweet song of a nightingale in an adjoining coppice 

 During one of our most furious artillery duels, a nightingale sang gaily from the shelter of a
dwarfed hawthorn, his song sounding strange and eerie between the violent cannonading
from our guns.

Yet, in spite of the deafening uproar, he never paused in his singing until the dawn came up, lurid and sullen, over the eastern horizon, and the rain descended in torrents. 

Later on, his mate was found to have a nest in the hawthorn, and was sitting upon her eggs, apparently unmoved by the thunder of the guns.

She certainly paid no heed to the movements of the troops as they passed to and fro, close to the nest, busy with their day's work.

An observer in the battle-zone in the valley of the Ancre writes on June 1, 1918: '' Whether in the front line, or in the still noisier belt just in front of the field-guns, the heavier the fire the more exultant the flow of song.

"Three nights ago, when we stood-to during a barrage in gas-masks in a wood reeking with mustard gas, the nightingale's still sang undismayed in the branches overhead." 
"In May, 1917, a nightingale, in Ossus Wood, our most advanced position near the St. Quentin Canal, sang particularly well when the machine-guns fired, as if in answer to them."

When preparations were on foot for the great " third battle of Ypres," a party of troops halted in a wood for the usual "'ten minutes easy".

The wood was well within shellfire of the enemy and had just received such a sprinkling of poison gas that the men were compelled, as the air was heavily charged with gas-fumes, to wear their respirators. 

To their amazement,  a nightingale burst into song in the very wood in which they were halted

An eye-witness speaks of a nightingale which sang his spring song of passion in the derelict garden of a shattered nunnery while shells shrieked overhead.

Another observer writes : "The song of the nightingale seemed to come all the more sweetly
and clearly in the quiet intervals between the bursts of firing. 

"There was something infinitely sweet and sad about it, as if the countryside were singing gently to itself in the midst of all our noise and confusion..

"You felt the nightingale's song was the only real thing which would remain when all the rest was long past and forgotten.

"It is such an old song too,handed on from nightingale to nightingale through the summer nights of so many innumerable years. "

In spite of  tree stumps, which were the only indication of the site of Thiepval Wood, reed Warblers did not even raise their heads out of their nests during the most heavy firing.

A pair of Icterine Warblers were building in a lilac  bush in Villers Pluich, on May 25, 1917, but the place got a bad pounding the same evening and the nest was probably destroyed, as it was only a very short distance behind the firing-line

Despite the fact that the largest Hun shells were bursting near, a whitethroat remained on its nest, and, although the very air seemed to be filled with a terrifying, tearing crash followed by a long echoing roar, duly reared its brood of four

A blackcap sat on her eggs near Ypres and never even raised her head from her duty when shells burst close by . 

Another blackcap trilled its dainty song night after night, and, though the guns were often fired, sang gaily sang on his perch in one of the saplings that masked one of the guns. 

A blackcap's nest was blown sideways by shells, but the birds rebuilt another nest within 10 feet of the old nest. 

The three eggs, which formed the complement of this second venture, were white as snow,
but both cock and hen, which alternately sat on them, never flinched when under shellfire

While our guns thundered the overture to the battle of Arras, a chiffchaff sang impatiently not far behind the battle line.

Hedge sparrows were very fond of building their nests in the broken wheels of derelict waggons,

Swallows flew around the heaps of ruins that represented their former homes, and it was some days before they became reassured and built in the military huts constructed against the battered walls.

Swallows often nested in billets, and a pair placed their nest and reared their brood in a room used as a field dressing-station.
Another pair built their nest in an Armstrong hut  only 60 or 70 yards from a battery of 6-inch howitzers, which fired at intervals of about three minutes or less throughout the day, and, on special occasions, all night long.

With each discharge the air concussion, quite apart from the crash of the report, caused the hut to rock, indeed almost to jump.

Swallows did not desert their broods in an outhouse when a shell took off the greater part of the
roof, and before the day was over they were using the shell-holes as a convenient entrance
through which to pass backwards and forwards with food for their young. 

A swallow's nest with five eggs was found in a German  dug-out, about six  feet from the floor. 

Swallows often used the circular nissen huts put out for the troops, and they were extraordinarily tame and confiding.

A wooden porch, erected outside a ruined single-room cottage at Roisel, was used directly it was put up.

Another pair made valiant efforts to build their nest under the hood of a Royal Artillery battery lorry. It went out regularly, but the birds carried on building operations on its return and only gave up after two or three days. 

A pair of swallows managed to stick their nest against the vertical wall of a windowless room used as an officers' mess (the nest had no sort of support underneath). 

In the very heart of a shelled and ruined town, swallows quietly perched on war-telegraph wires before migrating as though the turmoil of battle were 1,000 miles away. 

Preparatory to migration, the swallows collected in flocks and might be seen rising in a body whenever a shell struck the roof on which they were perching.

Martins and swallows flew over and out of the trenches even when the Maxims were rattling away, scattering their deadly shower of bullets.

Quite a hundred house martins and swallows used to circle, in the spring of 1918, around the cathedral and adjacent church tower of Ypres.

These were daily shelled and hit. Nonetheless, nestbuilding went on with patience and perseverance, the necessary mud being obtained from very old shell-holes and the canal banks.

At one part of the line, house martins delighted to build their nests under the cornice, decorated with cupids and flowers, surrounding a wall that was once part of the ballroom of an historic chateau.

A sand martin's nest, full of young birds,was found on the exposed side of a German trench captured in July 1918.

The parent birds, though they had survived a long and severe shelling of the trench before its capture, seemed absolutely without fear.

Another fine chateau, that had suffered badly from Boche shells, was deserted except by a few sparrows in the drawing-room.

Every house that had been blown to bits by shell-fire provided an endless choice of fascinating nesting-places for sparrows among the chinks of the ruined walls.

Flocks of sparrows might be seen to leave a building which had been struck by a shell only to return there within a few minutes. 

Small flocks of tree sparrows were frequently seen on our wire in front of the craters which divided the German line from ours.

Wire entanglements attracted chaffinches which evidently considered them preferable to brambles. and more than one nest was found in a tangle of our barbed-wire "briars".

Chaffinches could be heard singing on the Somme whenever there was a lull in the almost incessant fire.

In April 1917, a flock of a few score linnets was always on or about a derelict clump of telegraph wires at Epehy where shells fell not infrequently.

Starlings never had such opportunity for unmolested housekeeping as in the remains of the poor battered churches. 

Flocks would sweep in a semi-circle from some building which had been struck by a shell, and then swing back to it and settle almost before the brick dust had completely cleared away.

On one occasion, a pair of magpies went on building their nest in a wood when the battle was at its fiercest. Suddenly a shell struck the foot of the tree, sending tree and nest high into the air.

A magpie was seen to fly to a crater, made by a shell a few seconds previously, and begin to feed on the grubs among the freshly scattered earth.

 In our advance on Peronne, a pet magpie was found in the German trenches and was promptly appropriated by its captor. Acting on the adage of '' set a thief to catch a thief," a magpie became the devoted guardian of a soldier's tent.

Skylarks might at times be seen singing over trenches in which two armies were at death-grips, but they always sang in spite of everything.

In fact, the song of the skylark at dawn over no-man's-land was as cusomary  as the "song" of the sniper's bullet. 

Skylarks could be heard singing on the Somme, well in advance of the large guns, whenever there was a lull in the almost incessant fire and they might often be seen soaring to '' Heaven's gate" when aeroplanes above were being vigorously shelled by anti-aircraft guns

As a soldier-poet wrote: 
"Hushed is the shriek of hurtling shells, and hark!
Somewhere within that bit of deep blue sky,
Grand in his loneliness, his ecstasy,
His lyric wild and free, carols a lark."

But, if only to show the variability of the human temperament, I record the following story of another British Tommy and a lark.
After a day of terrific fighting, when the bombardment ceased, there lay on the battlefield some scores of our dead and wounded. Of a sudden, a lark darted into the sky, pouring forth his joyous lay. "What the hell is he singing about?" asked the prostrate Tommy.

Swifts were quite fearless of the guns, and their screams were strangely appropriate when accompanied by the moan of a shell. They shrieked overhead, while 15,000 feet above, our shrapnel was bursting round an enemy aeroplane.

The call of the cuckoo, so reminiscent of the promise of spring, was eagerly awaited by our fighting men, and, on the Somme, its familiar note was heard whenever the almost
incessant gunfire died down.

Cuckoos were seen within 300 yards of the first-line trenches.

Owls, brown and little, were so callous to the racket of shell and rifle fire that they revelled in hawking rats and mice at night, as usual, and proved of inestimable value.

Often at night, when the guns were active, owls slipped noiselessly past, on silent wing, dodging from side to side in the manner peculiar to the species,and keeping clear as far as possible from in front of the muzzles of the guns. 

A pair of barn owls inhabited the ruins of a barn which also sheltered an anti-aircraft gun, and, whenever this was fired, the owls dashed out to be mobbed by all the small birds in the neighbourhood.

Kestrels manifested an utter disregard for all the noise of war and might often be seen over no-man's-land  or sitting on the stakes supporting the barbed wire.

They hovered about all day in the hottest part of the line, not in the least disconcerted apparently when a promising mouse-area suddenly rose in the air in a cascade of black or yellow earth.

One pair of kestrels had a nest in a crack  on the side of a slagheap which was frequently shelled by the Germans. Whenever a shell exploded near their domicile, the birds would fly down to some wire entanglements in the vicinity,  but they returned as soon as things quieted down, and never deserted their nest.

Storks returned unusually early to Alsace in 1916, but the draining of the marshes round
Strasbourg drove them nearly all away from that city. They proved as indifferent to the thunder of the guns as any other bird and returned to old nesting places on ruined buildings.

Snipe and waterfowl of all sorts congregated on the flooded craters and the vast expanse of mud and desolation between the lines, feeding securely in this no-man's-land, for no man from either side dare venture from his trench in pursuit, much less stop to pick up a bird he might chance to shoot, for fear of a sniper's bullet.

Coots often indulged in a fight on their own account, and paid little attention to the shells which were falling close to them.

Mallard resting on pools close to our lines were not in the least disturbed by the boom of our guns firing over their heads.

They flighted regularly to their feeding-ground somewhere within the German lines, and regularly returned in spite of the terrific roar and rattle of the artillery.

Nothing could make them forsake their resting-ground although, to reach it, they had to cross two immense armies engaged in a deadly fight for a strip of ground.

Ducks paid more heed to the odd rifle shots of the sniper than they did to the far greater disturbance of the shells, but, on one occasion, when a blazing balloon came down close to a river, they appeared very much alarmed for an hour or more. 

The swans of Ypres were well known to practically nearly every battalion which tasted the fighting in the Ypres salient. 

In June,1915, the shelling of this area was particularly severe, but the small family of swans, which lived in the moat below the ramparts of the stricken city, glided placidly on the water and survived this and the terrible bombardments of the subsequent three years.

Great was the excitement among our troops when, in 1917, the swans began nesting operations. 

On one occasion a German shell fell within a short distance of the nest, but the bird which was then sitting took no notice, except that, for a moment, she fluttered from the concussion of the air. 

The triumph of the parent birds came when, during the fearful fighting of the third battle for the
city, two cygnets were hatched.

Around the caricature of St. Martin's Cathedral at Ypres, a faithful remnant of civic pigeons still, in 1917, told of ancient peace.

A fair-sized orchard, directly between our lines and the enemy's and frequently swept by both rifle and artillery fire, seemed the favourite promenade for cock pheasants.

 The familiar "'chuk-up, chuk-chuk-kup'' of a cock pheasant going to roost could be heard nightly in June,1918, in a clump of willows which lay about 50 yards to the rear of the support trenches at Ypres. 

This clump was daily plastered with a few shells in the vain hope of finding some 18-pounders. Each day, it was expected, would prove the pheasant's last; but no sooner or later in the evening the Germans would get the same sound advice.

In many places, pheasants were conspicuous by their absence. Possibly this was due to the wholesale destruction of the woods or to the poaching proclivities of some of our soldiers.

Partridges fed securely in no-man's-land. A nest, with 14 eggs, was found within 50 yards of a battery position. The bird sat close, though 2,000 rounds were fired daily.

Near Gouzeaucourt, in a very much shelled area, a partridge sat on 17 eggs. On either side of her nest, and within two yards of it, were ''pip-squeak" shell-holes very recently made. 

Partridges were often seen about the line in the La Bassee sector where they gave good prac-
tice for successful rifle and Lewis-gun fire into no-man's-land.

A " Minnie " shell was seen to explode in the middle of a covey of partridges. Such birds as were not hit simply jumped up, lit again, and immediately went on feeding unperturbed.

Quails called to each other while shells exploded close to them and could be heard calling during ''stand-to " just before dawn, in August,1918, in the reoccupied trenches of the old devas
tated area of the first Somme offensive.

Corncrakes ''craked" regularly in spite f the fact that ''back areas" were being shelled with great persistence and were reported as plentiful in the long hay-grass growing round the frontline trenches on the Somme.

In the farmyards, hens went on clucking and laying eggs, while huge shells burst all
round them.

The foregoing extracts from observations by eye-witnesses are but samples of a host of notes on the behaviour of individual birds on our Western Front.

One would have expected that the casualties among birds would have been very heavy and that hundreds must have been wounded and killed by bursting shrapnel, but their bodies were
seldom seen.

Possibly they were immediately eaten by the numberless armies of vermin which swarmed about the country. 

After a wood had been shelled by the Germans, it was carefully searched to see the effects on wildlife, and only a dead partridge,a dove, two rats, and a severely wounded mole were found.

Rats, mice, bats, beetles, caterpillars and butterflies, even worms many inches below the ground, could be found dead by the dozen after a gas attack, but no adult birds  although any
nestlings must, of course, have been suffocated. 

On one occasion, when the gas attack was particularly severe and before the great white cloud drifted to our lines, the birds were chirping and twittering gaily, the robin trillling his autumn song and the starlings singing in full chorus in a shattered tree. 

Then, except for the awful crash of the guns, nature was silent. Yet, when the gas cloud dispersed, all the birds were singing just as gaily as ever, chirping and hunting food as if nothing had happened.

Possibly the birds flee before the gas cloud, just as they flee before a bush fire, and return when it is over.

One observer writes of having seen several sparrows suffering from shell-shock. 

Two starlings, roaming listlessly over the ground, every now and then staggering as if weak and unsteady on their legs may have been similarly afflicted.

Naturally our soldiers took every opportunity they could of having a day's shooting, and any game they might get proved an acceptable addition to their rations. 

There are also stories of how our cavalrymen, when at rest behind the lines, used to delight in riding down partridges. 

Shooting was one of the principal recreations of the Allied armies after the Armistice of November 11, 1918. 

The German civilian population had to surrender its firearms of every description when the occupying troops arrived so that large stocks of sporting guns and cartridges were available in every town and village.

On February 3, 1919, an Army order was issued prohibiting, in accordance with the local game laws, the shooting of partridges.

Cock pheasants and wildfowl, however, still remained fair game.

More than one article on bird-nesting at the front proved at least the undaunted keenness of our fighting egg-collectors,

It is, however, truly touching that, in the midst of their life-and-death struggle, our soldiers should have so often found relaxation and comfort in studying and thinking of Nature.

 I have repeatedly heard that, when in billets, our men were only too glad to forget the horrors of war in comparing notes on birds. 

The extreme anxiety which was shown by our soldiers over these morsels of life was surprising, seeing that they had set the value of their own at nothing. 

That the war was not all brutal was proved by many acts of Christian charity as well as by numerous kindly actions towards birds.

On one occasion an officer of a London regiment stood for half an hour beside a plover's
nest to prevent the eggs being damaged by the troops who were passing the spot.

A soldier, conducting a war correspondent round our lies, told him: ''A blackbird has a nest with four eggs in it in that hole, but I haven't told anyone - they might disturb the bird."

When the hospital ship, Llandovery Castle, was torpedoed in June,1918, the second officer returned to the sinking vessel in order to save his pet canary.

It is recorded of the late Lord Lucas that, on seeing a pair of marsh harriers circling round their nest on his Whittlesea property, he exclaimed to his gamekeeper : "What a sight! Probably the
only pair breeding in the British Isles. This is the next great thing to the War!" 

A Scottish miner, shortly afterwards killed on the Western Front, told a friend : '' If it weren't for
the birds, what a hell it would be!

"I watch them singing, and something comes into my throat. . . " 

NEXT: The conflict in the air

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