Wild plants and World War One
The bright red poppy worn around the time of Remembrance Day is one of our most recognisable and poignant symbols in modern Britain. The colour and fragility of the poppy petals symbolise the bloodshed and destruction of youth but also hope for rebirth, new life and beauty after the horrors of war. The imagery of the Remembrance Poppy is so strong that it has eclipsed some of the other ways in which wild plants were important in the global conflicts of one hundred years ago.
The mud filled trenches and mortar scarred no man’s land of the Western Front are a familiar image of World War One and they allowed the poppies to flourish in the shattered aftermath. The plains and forests of the Eastern Front are less familiar to many people in Britain but they too bore all the marks of mechanised warfare. And yet beside the bomb craters a very ancient tradition was noticed by a Reutars correspondent covering the Russian retreat from Poland. The Russian soldiers were taking pieces of bark from the birch trees to write letters home, leaving behind a mosaic of bright orange-brown squares highlighted against the white of the bark. The need for the soldiers to communicate their thoughts, fears and hopes using this most basic and ancient material left its own trace on the landscape.
In the ‘White War’ of the Alps, between the Italians and the Austrian Hungarian Empire, the Edelweiss was appropriated as a symbol by both sides. The Edelweiss has long been a high status plant among the countries of the Alps associated with beauty, courage in the mountains and the German Romantic Movement of the 19th Century. There is a suggestion that the carving on a Roman auxillary’s tomb in Corinthia is a representation of an Edelweiss. The Austrian Alpine troops certainly used the Edelweiss as a military insignia and this symbol was granted to the German Alpine troops who came to fight with them on this front. Both sides suffered terrible losses in the frozen slopes of the Alps and a song became popular in Italy which described a young woman visiting the grave of her lover to find Edelweiss (or Stelutis in Italian) growing there. This song, ‘Stelutis’, is performed as a mass by the Italian Alpine Corps in memory of the dead from this conflict. Today the Edelweiss is used as a logo by Alpine Mountain Rescue teams from France to Bulgaria and as a national symbol in both Switzerland and Austria.
One of the more moving photographs from World War One is that of a Australian Light Horseman stooping to pick anemones in Palestine (http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P03631.046). It is a moment of respite and beauty captured by the war photographer Frank Hurley in the conflict that raged all over the world.
The prominence of the Remembrance Poppy is well recognised but there are other flowers which have been used for this purpose. The cornflower or ‘blueut’ is the remembrance flower of France and the forget-me-not was also used in Newfoundland to commemorate their dead from the Battle of the Somme. During the conflict wild flowers were also commonly included as motifs on the thousands of silk postcards made by refugee women of France and Belgium and sold to the soldiers to send home. These flowers included poppies, cornflowers, daisies, holly, roses, and mistletoe.
The home front also experienced an upsurge in the use and value of wild plant resources for food, materials and medicines. The scouts and guides collected sphagnum moss for wound dressings on an industrial scale
Warfare affects all aspects of life from access to the most basic food and materials to the destruction of life and landscapes. Wild plants are often as their most valued during this time as resources and a source of beauty and solace during periods of extreme stress and hardship.