IN THE kitbag of his brain, my father carried the countryside to the trenches a century ago. Peregrines, salmon, tumbling Devon streams, all the wild flowers of the Kentish woods and downs went with him.
In his novel How Dear Is Life, he describes the moment war was declared: “People were waving hats and cheering. Soldiers with fixed bayonets were marching. It was terribly exciting.
“They found themselves below Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. The crowd was now singing God Save the King. Philip did not feel like joining in. Now that war was to start at midnight he felt only slight chill and fear. Oh God, what would happen? It was awfully exciting and it was also terrible.”
By November, father was trained as a frontline soldier.
His troop train passed through Chichester where he posted his last letter to his mother before embarkation for France. In his book The Wet Flanders Plain, he described what happened next.
“We marched to a convent at
St Omer, and at twilight, strolling around the grounds looking for chestnuts under the trees, my friend and I came to a grassy knoll where men were standing still and silent, looking towards the east.
“A flicker in the sky, a pause, another flicker like summer lightning. No-one spoke. Then a remote shiver of the air, fainter than the least breeze in the dark trees around us, and a far-away sound as of thunder. It must be Ypres, we whispered to each other in the deepening night.”
Soon he was there, in the trenches of ‘Plugstreet’ (Ploegsteert) wood, for months of the coming winter, as the wood and all inside it were torn apart by shells and bullets. I have recently been back to that wood and found a peaceful scene of 90-year-old oak trees, honeysuckle, and white admiral butterflies in the July sunshine surrounding the gravestones and memorials.
Father’s time there is almost incomprehensible to us today. After being invalided home in early 1915, he returned twice more to the trenches. By 1918 and final return to Britain, his thoughts now were of an opposite experience. Nature, which includes humans, is in a continuously violent state of being.
This had to be reflected in all the stories he now set out to write. Tarka the Otter lives perilously, in continual danger, and is finally destroyed. Salar the Salmon is hunted by lamprey, seal, poacher and on to final age. Chee-kai, the wild Chinese pheasant in The Phasian Bird faces almost daily destruction from gunners and poachers, as does his protector, the farmer who has reared him.
The war pilot, Manfred, in The Gold Falcon, a Byronic tale of the New World, drowns in the Atlantic attempting to fly home to his sick wife and baby. Yet through all of this output, the Phoenix of life arises continuously in his books. Exactly how our strange and dangerous world works.