Wildlife was hugely important to men stationed in an unfamiliar part of the world, facing tragedy and the overwhelming likelihood of imminent death on an almost daily basis. Local flora and fauna allowed respite, mental escapism and peaceful observance; a removal from the overbearing physical and psychological task at hand.
It’s certain that the men (and women) at or near the fronts were very grateful to have wild animal life around them. Writes Lieutenant William Sorley Brown, stationed at Gallipoli in December 1915, “One feels thankful that, no matter how many guns may be thundering, the noise is never sufficiently loud to drive away the birds.”
Bird and insect life is most interesting here… Larks can always be seen, and their presence seems to lessen in some degree the sordidness of war…
They fly about heedless of the messengers of death, which ever and anon speed through the air. There are plenty of thrushes and crows and wagtails, while hawks, magpies, wild duck, quails, sand martins and many other kinds of birds may also be seen.
Brown is happy the birds are there. For him they help dilute the vileness of the warfare he finds himself immersed in, and he marvels at how they seem to remain unfazed by the bullets and shells perilously slicing through their usurped airspace. However, the next part of his diary shows a contrast – what some of the wild creatures were to the stationed men: pests.
Vultures too are fairly numerous and may be observed hovering high overhead. One of these vultures attacked two French soldiers the other day. It was captured and is to be seen chained up in the French lines.
The birds were Egyptian Vultures and, as Brown mentions, rather meanly “captured and…chained up” by French marines stationed at Sedd-el-Bahr. These natural scavengers had most probably been attempting to snatch food scraps from near the French, explaining the motives behind this avian “attack”. The French amused themselves by naming the birds Franz Joseph and Wilhelm, after the Austrian Emperor and German Kaiser respectively. Although the presence of wildlife on the fronts was largely cathartic, such incidents did occur of men exerting their dominion over their wild wartime bedfellows. It was, perhaps, the only control they felt they could still wield in their despairing, battle-entrenched situation.
This blog post first appeared on lorajones.com