A Silent Recovery: Nature’s Reclamation of First World War Battlefields

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On a brilliantly sunny morning in May 2023, around twenty tired history students from across Canada, myself among them, crawled out of two vans and a tour bus into an unassuming farm field somewhere in France. We found ourselves here thanks to the Canadian Battlefields Foundation, (CBF), a charity established in 1992 to commemorate and raise public awareness about Canada’s role in both World Wars. Every year the CBF sends groups of students overseas on guided study tours of major Canadian battlefields and military cemeteries in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Our group assembled, and one of our guides told us to start walking up a nearby ridge which gently rose from a wheat field. From the top of that ridge our path led us down into a deep valley, and I realized that I was now standing at the bottom of the gargantuan Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt crater.

From the inside of the bowl-shaped depression, I looked back at the lip of the crater and saw our group photographer standing there. Our photographer was nearly seven feet tall, but the bottom of the crater was so far away from me that he looked like an indistinct smudge against the blue morning sky. The crater was blanketed in shade, thanks to the trees jutting out at strange angles from the steep walls. They provided a welcome respite from the sun, which was just beginning to bake the landscape for the day. It was a peaceful place – a good spot to stop and rest after walking through so many other rolling farm fields which characterize France’s Somme region. In the dirt near where I had stopped to catch my breath lay a small plastic planter which held some small wooden crosses, paper poppies and a little Union Jack. On the dirt in front of it sat another commemorative offering: a piece of slightly weathered, laminated paper. On this paper were the names of twenty-five German men, along with a pledge in three languages: “Unvergessen, N’Oublions Pas, Lest We Forget.”

The memorial at the bottom of the Hawthorn Ridge Crater, with our group photographer visible at the top right. Photo credit: Bram Fookes.

This peaceful valley had not been carved out naturally over the course of millions of years by glaciers or the flow of water. Instead, it was formed on 1 July 1916, when British military engineers detonated approximately 40,000 pounds of ammonal (a powerful high explosive) beneath a network of German trenches and field fortifications, achieving the equivalent of several millennia’s worth of geological change in less than ten seconds.1 Standing in that immense crater, I found it remarkable how nature had regenerated over the scars of the First World War. The scars are still clearly visible if one knows where to look, but nature has reclaimed the sites.

The farm fields of Northwestern Europe, separated by low rock fences or the occasional stand of trees are nearly indistinguishable from the landscapes in rural Ontario. However, fields which lie over former battle sites tend to contain the occasional geographical feature that might seem very out of place to a Canadian. It is not uncommon to see cows drinking from large, circular ponds which were carved out by artillery shells or mine explosions. The ground in forgotten forest regions sometimes undulates unnaturally with zigzagging depressions, full of leaf litter and fallen branches. These are the remnants of the now infamous trenches in which millions of men experienced the most terrifying moments of their lives. Many would not survive.

Nature’s attempt to impose peace over these former places of terror is a strange dichotomy to deal with when the phenomenon confronts you. On one sunny afternoon I shared a picnic lunch with new friends in the shade of an oak tree, watching a herd of sheep lazily graze on the tall grass growing from the strange, pockmarked ground around Vimy Ridge. Large swathes of ground in that region have been permanently closed off to humans, freezing them in a state of churning chaos. But nature does not abide by signs and electric fences. Vegetation has grown up on these lands over the last century, covering the muddy, barren landscape which soldiers would have witnessed. Sheep are often the only ones allowed to walk these landscapes – partially to ensure that the boots of tourists do not trample the craters into obscurity, but also because buried ordnance still threatens to carry out their deadly functions to this day. Places such as Vimy Ridge or more famously, the Zone Rouge, will likely remain a danger to humans for centuries to come.2 But nature does not operate on human timescales, and one day the last of the buried ordnance in these areas will decay, finally removing the last scars of some of humanity’s most destructive activities.

A closer look at the scarred landscape around Vimy Ridge. Note the sheep grazing in the grass. Photo credit: Bram Fookes.

Beyond the permanently cratered ground at Vimy Ridge, the monument itself marks another way in which the First World War transformed the landscape. The way we memorialize the First World War has dramatically reshaped many places across Europe. Vast, manicured cemeteries filled with identical rows of headstones now occupy lands that were once used for agriculture.3 Imposing Romanesque monuments dominate hills and ridges that were once covered with quiet forests. Where battles transformed landscapes into haunting shapes that permanently recall chaos, cemeteries and monuments dedicated to what transpired on those battlefields have been consciously molded after the war by humans into places which evoke a certain imperial brand of peace, tranquility and rest. But the state of these sites is temporary, because nature will never stop regenerating.  

The Vimy Ridge Memorial, with crater-scarred ground visible in the lower right. Photo credit: Bram Fookes.

A professor posed a question at one of the countless First World War cemeteries we visited in France: “It’s been over a century – when do we stop commemorating? When do we choose to stop maintaining these cemeteries, and what happens then?”

When humans stop maintaining these manicured military cemeteries and imposing limestone monuments commemorating the World Wars and those they annihilated, nature will treat them as it treated the sites where we have chosen not to build monuments, like the Hawthorn Ridge crater on the Somme. During my visit, I witnessed gardeners carefully pruning tree branches, and was told that this was so that roots do not grow too large and disturb headstones. When we stop maintaining these sites, the headstones will be pushed out of their orderly rows, and the names inscribed on them will be weathered away entirely. For the moment, humans keep the evidence of the First World War inscribed on nature for commemorative purposes. But if we stop commemorating the war even the Vimy memorial, today a shining spire of alien limestone, will be covered in nature’s inevitable shroud of ivy.4 One day, the only hints left of the immense destructive power of the First World War might be cliffs and valleys indistinguishable from those created by natural processes.

1 “A History of the Craters on Hawthorn Ridge,” Hawthorn Ridge Crater Association, accessed July 1, 2023, https://hawthornridgeca.com/history/.

2 Andrew Turner, “Vimy Ridge 1917: Byng’s Canadians Triumph at Arras,” (London: Osprey Publishing, 2005), 91; Donovan Webster, Aftermath: The Remnants of War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), 11-80.

3 “Annual Report 2007–2008.” Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 2008. 13. https://web.archive.org/web/20110614233601/http://www.cwgc.org/admin/files/Annual%20Report%202007-08%20Part1.pdf.

4 Jacqueline Hucker, “After the Agony in Stony Places: The Meaning and Significance of the Vimy Monument” in Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment eds. Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci, Mike Bechthold (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007),346.

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Bram Fookes

Graduate history student at the University of Guelph. Research interests centre around environmental history, specifically the intersection of environmental and military histories. BA (hon.) Brock University, 2023.

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