Originally published November 2014
Hello everyone! There is no doubt that the act of war is the most destructive activity that our species can direct its energy towards. Our ability to destroy our surroundings whilst killing each other has increased by several orders of magnitude since the Battle of the Crocus Fields in 352 BC. That year saw a large Saffron plain in Thessaly turned into a bloody mire when Phillip II of Macedon vanquished the Phocians in the Third Sacred War. This year we are commemorating the start of a conflict that lasted only four years but the effects of which will be noticeable for centuries to come.
“When all is done and said, the War was mainly a matter of holes and ditches.” So wrote Siegfried Sassoon, and you can see his viewpoint. During the First World War (WWI) a network of trenches stretching approximately 25,000 miles was excavated from the English Channel to the Swiss border. The consequent trampling of grassland and crushing of plants and animals were the temporary effects of the trench warfare. However the alterations in soil structure and erosion resulting from forest logging and constant shelling ensured that the European landscape changed irrevocably. We do not have to cross the Channel to study the effect of digging trenches on the land. Around 20,000 troops were camped in Kinmel Park near Bodelwyddan, in North Wales, where a series of training trenches, pockmarked with shell craters, were in place to prepare them for life on the front.
WWI was the last war, certainly in Europe, where troops marched en masse around the countryside. The railways were used as far as possible, but the rest of the way to the front was by foot, or if they were lucky, by one of the London buses shipped over for that purpose. Over 65 million men from thirty countries fought in the war. It can be no surprise that, at a time before mass inoculation programmes, such a large-scale movement of people would lead to problems of disease and infection control. The outbreak of Influenza in 1918 was not attributed to the war, but the global transportation of battle-weakened, often immuno-compromised men, hastened the spread of the virulent strain that came to be known as Spanish Flu. Revised estimates put the number of dead between 50 and 100 million worldwide. The pandemic was responsible for more deaths than the war itself and is cited as the deadliest natural disaster on record.
Anyone who went to view the paintings of the German artist Otto Dix at the De La Warr Pavilion in May will have been horrified by the images he created from his own experience in the trenches. Many of the men portrayed on his canvases were victims of gas attacks. Almost 120,000 tonnes of poisonous gas were released during the course of the war. Thirty different types of gas were used, ranging from irritants such as tear gas to carcinogens like carbonyl chloride and the infamous sulphur mustard or mustard gas which burned skin and accounted for 90% of all British gas casualties. The gas would remain around the trenches for a couple of days and contamination of air, soil and water occurred to varying degrees depending on weather conditions and temperature. Mustard gas lasted for months in the environment under very cold conditions. Ironically, Dix made the point that gas attacks had the positive consequence of fumigating living quarters and clothing of the rats and lice that added to the men’s misery.
The use of chemical weapons was not as effective as either side hoped in turning the tide of battle but the disposal of gas shells and ammunition immediately after the war proved to be a very hazardous operation. Many people in France and Belgium were killed attempting to transport and store munitions and in 1919 the Government in Brussels decided to dispose of it as quickly as possible by dumping it in the sea. Every day for six months a shipload of ammunition disappeared into the sea, resulting in the Paardenmarkt Sandbank, just off the Belgian coast, becoming a resting place for an estimated 35,000 tonnes of ammunition, a third of which are shells containing poisonous gas. This was bad enough, but the end of the Second World War saw further dumping of ammunition and chemical weapons, over two million tonnes in the North Sea including a million tonnes dropped into Beaufort’s Dyke between Scotland and Northern Ireland. The collaborative agreement between fifteen European governments known as OSPAR (taken from OSlo and PARis conventions) has identified thirty one sites in the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean where chemical weapon shells are corroding away. There are a further 120 sites with conventional munitions containing hazardous substances, around half of which are just off the French coast.
The results of this toxic time bomb are yet to be experienced. Scientists disagree on the timescale and effects but the general conclusion is that sometime between 2020 and 2060 corrosion will have occurred to the extent that the poisons will leak out and marine life, and the lives of those who work in the marine environment, will be at risk.
The technology of the First World War did not have the ability to kill, destroy or pollute on the same scale as that of subsequent conflicts. Clearly the development, testing and usage of modern weaponry in this nuclear age has had a far more devastating effect on the planet. However the human element of the 1914-18 war which connects every town, village and hamlet in this country, places a little part of all of us in those trenches that reshaped the face of Europe.
I would like to add a semi-personal note to this brief summary of the effects of the War which unfortunately did not end all wars. My old alma mater, Napier University in Edinburgh, has the distinction of owning a campus on the site of Craiglockhart Hospital. The hospital is famed for the pioneering techniques used to treat officers with shellshock, a condition treated with suspicion by the army at the time. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met there in 1917, an event that has been celebrated in the play Not About Heroes and Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. From an ecological viewpoint the Campus grounds are unique as the only place in Scotland where the coral fungus Clavulinopsis cinereoides can be found. The fungus is common throughout Europe and its discovery in the UK earlier this year provides us with a tempting scenario of men who cursed through sludge, as Owen described, and whose boots carried spores back across the seas to this particular lawn in Edinburgh.
Some came home, as I was told,
Some battle scarred, some lame,
My soldier Daddy didn’t come,
We have a photo in a frame.
As I Was Told (Gretta Johnson, 2014)