Where it all began… the research proposal

This project emerges from a conjunction of my regular teaching (HIST 375 The Great War) and a ‘guest appearance’ in Dr. N. Christiansen’s Elves Orcs and the Environment. In an attempt to explain the impact on J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing of first hand experience of the Western Front, I employed a mix of photographs and paintings to take students on a virtual journey from the manicured, highly domesticated ‘natural’ world of southern England, to the heart of the shell-blasted, ‘ruined country’ of the battle zone, where the ‘natural’ environment had been largely if not totally obliterated.   While I’m not sure how much this little exercise deepened students’ understanding of Tolkien’s descriptions of ruined landscapes such as the Gladden Fields or Mordor, it helped flesh out an idea I had been toying with for some time. Namely, that witnessing the power of modern, industrial warfare to destroy the natural environment, to render it all but lifeless, to remake even the topography, must have altered the environmental consciousness of some soldiers.

This particular notion first struck me during a meeting of my Great War seminar, which focused on the work of prominent war artists such as William Orpen, Otto Dix, C.R.W. Nevinson, Frederick Varley, and Paul Nash. In fact, I borrowed the title of the project from a painting by the last of these. The canvas in question depicts a shell-blasted corner of the Ypres battlefield known 1918 as ‘Inverness Copse’. Indeed, it might more accurately be termed a ‘shell-scape’: that is, a product of industrialized warfare and environmental destruction on a scale previously unimaginable.

When considering the work of war artists (or indeed the famous war poets) we naturally focus on the human suffering – the exhaustion, fear, boredom, deprivation, exposure, and of course violent death of soldiers – that dominates their work. And yet, the destruction of the natural world is omnipresent, as unmistakable as industrial warfare’s impact on the physical manifestations of civilization and on the bodies and minds of soldiers. Plainly artists such as Nash saw and emphasized a connection among these outcomes. War was the great destroyer: extinguishing lives, eroding civilization, and unmaking the ‘natural’ environment.   And in some ways the last of these categories is the most fundamental. After all, both human life and civilization depend on ‘nature’, despite the tensions that sometimes exist among them.

The insights derived from my engagement with the connection between Tolkien’s experiences and his writings on one hand and the experiences and oeuvre of the war artists on the other, helped me see the familiar poetry and memoirs of figures such as Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon in a new light. Their reactions to the impact of trench warfare on the natural world became clearer and more significant. This encouraged me to keep watch for other, less famous figures with similar reactions and also for scholarship on the subject.   Happily, from the perspective of a historian looking for a new project, the latter proved far less fruitful than the former. While relatively casual forays into finding aids and on-line databases administered by the Imperial War Museum, the Canadian War Museum, and Oxford University turned up plenty of leads including lesser known poets such as David Jones and Edward Thomas, soldiers such as Agar Adamson, J.H. Becker, Will Bird, and Donald Fraser, and the naturalist Norman F. Ellison, I found next to nothing by way of scholarship on the subject of soldiers’ reactions to environmental destruction.

To be continued….