Guest post – James Wearn & Jenny Martin ‘Considering the Great War’s cartography of wounds’

A new paper published in the ‘Aftermath’ special edition of Stand To! The Journal of the Western Front Association offers a comparative perspective on the wounding and healing of soldiers and of the plants which surrounded them on battlefields of the First World War. 

A lot of pieces of metal were hurled in reciprocal anger during the Great War. 

A piece of metal travelling through the air at high speed wounds whatever living thing is in its way. 

That which is wounded either heals or succumbs – whether limb or branch, torso or trunk, finger or leaf, head or crown.

The effects of the above can be widespread and long-lasting.

Trees bleed too! Red sap leaking from a trunk in response to mechanical damage.

These were the simple bases for the authors’ study; combining the disciplines of military history, plant science, medicine, and poetry to trace a parallel ‘cartography of wounds’.

This conceptual map of wounding and recovery traverses space, time, body and mind. People on the battlefields were not alone – they were surrounded by all manner of living organisms grasses, trees, birds, insects, and more – some large and obvious and some hidden within the soil. These unwitting participants were caught in the conflict and often suffered the same fates. Strikingly, there are considerable similarities between these groups:

As July passed into August and on to September, what had been sturdy trees sporting leafy canopies became bare trunks with jagged boughs, and those who had been upright men sporting shiny badges increasingly became blooded and tired. Men were relieved after a few days or weeks in the line, but the trees remained where they had grown and were shattered where they stood.” [in relation to the Somme in 1916, excerpted from our WFA paper]

The types of wound inflicted (scrape, slice, burn) and part affected induced a range of remarkably comparable responses in the humans that were there and the trees which stood around them. The forms and rates of healing bear similarities too, but plant life has a notable reservoir – seed banks and regenerative organs within the soil – and it was this that produced the familiar colour of red poppies, blue cornflowers, white chamomile, yellow charlock, shortly after conflict had subsided.

Badge of the RAMC

During the First World War, people’s interactions with the nature around them on battlefields were critical to successful advances/defences and they provided stimulating sources of hope and useful materials (outlined in JW’s previous guest post), yet we often ignore the ‘background greenery’ as quiescent.  Perhaps more than ever, it is timely to consider this perspective in combination with the inextricably linked fates of humans and more-than-human assemblages around us, making environmentally focused discussion of war and its legacy essential.

We have also endeavoured to supplement the legacy of the ‘cartography of wounds’ with a new war poem, encapsulating the comparative ethos of our study, embodying nature and humanity entwined.

Cartography of Wounds [first stanza, excerpted from our WFA paper]

Committed to memory before it was burned,
I learned it song–form like the alphabet and prayer.
I knew it like my hands. When I closed my eyes
I was there – a trench like a spine
that connected my neck of woods to the sprawled nerves
of my town’s diminished manhood. I heard the aberrant
sizzle of skin and songbirds. I waited still as a fox
in the thicket. I watched with kite–sharp sight as the hills,
lush green after rain and heat, churned pulpy, smelled noxious,
and faded grey as concrete. I could no longer differentiate between
if the land was mine or if the land was me.

Full reference – Wearn, James. & Martin, Jenny. (2019) Cartography of Wounds. Stand to! The Journal of the Western Front Association [‘Aftermath’ Special Edition] No.116 (October 2019): 79-85.

About the authors – Dr James Wearn is an ecologist and historian, who undertakes research focusing on plants and conflict (polemobotany), especially with regard to the First World War. James was interviewed this month in a BBC Radio 4 programme about the Poppy. Jenny Martin is a prize-winning poet and budding author.


Trees bleed too! Red sap leaking from a trunk in response to mechanical damage: Note: this is not a European tree and is the ‘bloodwood’ (Corymbia calophylla) of Australia, but it shows the concept nicely (credit: CC-BY-SA licensed, courtesy of ‘Hesperian’ on Wikipedia).

Badge of the RAMC: A symbol of medicine – the ancient Greek ‘serpent and staff’ features on the Royal Army Medical Corps badge (credit: James Wearn).

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