During the First World War, gardens were created by soldiers on both sides of the Western Front. They existed in all zones, from front lines to reserve trenches and convalescent centres to prisoner of war camps. In his book Defiant Gardens, landscape architect Kenneth Helphand presents the case that such gardens were an act of psychological defiance against the conditions of war.
Men serving in the trenches regularly experienced physical extremes which placed them under equally extreme mental and physical stress. The environment of trench warfare was one dominated by pain, destruction, disorientation and despair. Unnatural death was commonplace and chaos ruled, especially in the defoliated, apocalyptic vacuum of No Man’s Land.
Some soldiers found a way to transcend the chaotic, senseless environment of the fighting front by making gardens, stocking them with flowers and vegetables transplanted from nearby farms and chateaux and sometimes with seeds sent from home. In nurturing these small patches of growth and beauty, they were wresting some control over their war-torn environment and expressing hope and a belief in the future. Gardens by their very nature represent hope for the future – embodied in the plants that will eventually sprout from seeds.
Such gardens were mechanisms for both physical and psychological survival. They provided extra food to augment poor diets, and they also provided solace and a pastoral escape from war. The labour they required was a constructive outlet for energy and alleviated the grinding boredom of life in the trenches. The gardens were crafted from the materials and waste of the war environment and designed to be aesthetically pleasing; a form of trench art. They demonstrate the adaptability of people and the persistence of the creative impulse in such extreme circumstances.
First World War trench gardens were rare, but they increased in frequency with distance from No Man’s Land and the front lines. Some evidence of trench gardens survives in photographs, letters and memoirs. British soldiers planted cornflowers, forget-me-nots and Sweet Williams in pots made from spent artillery shells, and sent pressed flowers in letters to their loved ones. Some of the 5,000 prisoners of war at Ruhleben internment camp in Germany formed a horticultural society; they wrote home for seeds, sought advice from Kew Gardens and planted climbing flowers and vegetables to hide the barbed wire that encircled them.
The gardens are a physical representation of how people sought ways to hold onto normal life and to have hope for a better future, they were an oasis of calm in times of terror and something to distract during long periods where there was no movement at the front.
A German soldier and philosophy student, Lothar Dietz, wrote home in 1915 from his dugout at Hill 59 near Ypres: As one can’t possibly feel happy in a place where all nature has been devastated, we have done our best to improve things. First we built quite a neat causeway of logs, with a railing to it, along 2 the bottom of the valley. Then, from a pine wood close by which had also been destroyed by shells, we dragged all the best tree-tops and stuck them upright in the ground; certainly they have no roots, but we don’t expect to be here more than a month and they are sure to stay green that long. Out of the gardens of the ruined châteaux of Hollebecke and Camp we fetched rhododendrons, box, snowdrops and primroses, and made quite nice little flower-beds.
Another German soldier and student, Willy Holscher, wrote home from Champagne in 1916: Would you be so kind as to send me some flower-seeds? There is nothing very nice to look at around my billet, and, as I don’t know how long I may be stuck here, I want to grow some flowers. Please send me sweet-peas, convolvulus, sunflower, flax, mignonette, etc. I want to cover the unsightly earth with verdure.
The trench gardens at Digging In seek to emulate the small gardens created in the unsafe and destructive environment of the front line. Trench gardens close to the front were small and improvised – in contrast to those well back from the front lines, at convalescent centres and internment camps, which were often well-developed and had a greater air of permanence. The gardens contain a mixture of flowers, herbs and some vegetables (potatoes) but require tending and care just like those that were on the front line.
The gardens are used to help convey to visitors and schoolchildren something of the mental stresses that soldiers endured as a result of combat conditions and the depletion of the natural environment, and how creating and tending gardens helped them cope. We are currently growing flowers, some herbs and we also have some potato plants!