Lost Ecologists of the First World War

“Not only did the war bring to an end foreign excursions, but it ruptured the often close links with German scholars. It meant an inevitable dislocation of plans and careers …”

The British Ecological Society published a history on its 75th anniversary,  75 Years in Ecology: The British Ecological Society  by John Sheail (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987) that gives a few hints on how the First World War affected the lives and work of British and European ecologists.

Many of its founder British members covered sections of Britain from Cambridge to Scotland, Southern Ireland and Cornwall, Devon and the South in the company of German and European colleagues as part of the grandly titled International Phytogeographical Excursion around Britain in 1911.

On the eve of World War 1 at the end of the Edwardian period, British and European ecologists were pioneers of a discipline still in its early stages. The British Ecological Society had only formed in 1913 and is still going strong, having just celebrated its centenary – see also its Wikipedia entry.

The Cambridge University Botany School had mounted an ecological and botanic expedition to Provence and the fringes of the Mediterranean Alps when news of the Sarajevo assassination broke in June 1914. Two of that expedition were to die in the trenches of France and Flanders over the next 5 years.

Donald Macpherson 1886-1917

Only one of the two casualties was directly named in Shaeil’s book. The unnamed one was possibly Donald Macpherson (b. 1886) who “died in a French military hospital in 1917” (p.59). He had worked with William G. Smith, a colleague at the Edinburgh and East of Scotland Agricultural College (now the Scottish Rural University College) on Moor matgrass or nard grass (Nardus stricta) and the vegetation of the Moorfoot Hills. Smith went on publish the survey results as W.G. Smith, “The Distribution of Nardus stricta in relation to peat” in the Journal of Ecology, 6: 1-13, 1918.

Smith also wrote an obituary of MacPherson. After EDinburgh OTC and a Commission in the Scottish Horse, 2nd  Lieutenant D. MacPherson  transferred to the Royal Field Artillery in 1917 and was wounded in the back on his first action on the Menin Road. His CWGC record states that he  died on 11th November 1917 aged 31 years at Leith, probably in the Leith War Hospital (rather than France) and is buried in its associated Edinburgh (Warriston) Cemetery.

According to Smith, he abandoned field mapping as part of a Board of Agriculture survey begun in 1912, “the claims of the survey had to give place to a greater call, one which MacPherson felt strongly from the beginning of the war …” Smith described him as “ever pleasant. Best of all were the opportunities of joining him in the field. It was something of a task to keep up with the long striding place of a very tall companion.”

Captain Alfred Stanley Marsh (1892-1916)

The other ‘bright scholar’ was Captain Alfred Stanley Marsh (born 1892) of Crewkerne who was, according to the BES 75th Anniversary Book, “shot through the heart by a sniper’s bullet in the trenches of Armentieres in 1916” (p.41). He was the son of William Warren Marsh, a relieving officer and E. M. Marsh, of Blacknell, Crewkerne, Somerset.

In Sheail’s book he is called ‘Albert’  Stanley Marsh. Marsh’s  posthumous work was published by British ecologist and psychologist Arthur Tansley in 1917, who had been unfit for military service and worked as a clerk in munitions. Marsh’s experiments on competitve species of Bedstraw were finished by Tansley and published under Tansley’s name in 1917 as “On Competition between Galium saxatile and Galium sylvestre on different types of soil.” Journal of Ecology 5, 173-9, 1917. Tansley also wrote an obituary of Marsh in 1916, as Albert or Alfred Stanley Marsh, New Phytologist journal, 20, 132-6, 1916. S.R.Price also wrote an obituary on Captain A.S. Marsh in the Journal of Ecology 4, 119-120, 1916.

Based on his salt marsh and sand dune surveys and mappping work in summer 1913, Marsh was the author in 1915 of “The Maritime Ecology of Holme next the Sea, Norfolk” in the Journal of Ecology, 3: 63-73, 1915. His map reading and landscape survey  skills were to prove highly useful  as an infantry officer in wartime.

There is more about Captain Alfred Stanley Marsh of the 8th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry, killed and buried in Armentieres on 5 January 1916 on the Somerset Remembers website with obituaries, a unit photograph and sections from the 8th Battalion war diary  5 January 1916 which reads:

That day Capt. Marsh was killed by a sniper about 3 P.M. at the junction of Trenches 69 & 70.

and the CWGC website entry for him.

Ecologist A.S. Marsh lies to the left rear of the block of back to back Allied headstones in Cite Bonjean Militray Cemetery, Armentieres, France. Image CWGC website

Ecologist A.S. Marsh lies to the left rear of the block of back to back Allied headstones in Cite Bonjean Militray Cemetery, Armentieres, France. Image CWGC website

The town and cemetery where Marsh is buried have an interesting, almost symbolic history. Armentieres is a town in Northern France, on the Belgian frontier. The town was occupied by the 4th Division on 17 October 1914 (giving rise to the soldiers’ marching song “Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parlay Vous?”). It remained within the Allied lines until its evacuation ahead of the German advance on 10 April 1918, recovered again in 3 October 1918.
Plot IX of Cite Bonjean Militray Cemetery, Armentieres,  where Marsh is buried (Plot IX, row D headstone 79) was begun in October 1914 and continued to be used by field ambulances and fighting units until April 1918. Plots V, VI, VII and X were then used by the Germans. Although the cemetery now contains 2,145 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, more than 500 German graves remain in the cemetery even after 455 German graves were re-interred or concentrated elsewhere in 1925.

So A.S. Marsh lies appropriately in a cemetery where Germans and Allied soldiers rest close together, united again in death as in life, except during a war which was greatly disruptive of international scholarship, especially among for scientists or naturalists forced onto opposing sides. John Sheail notes (p.41) in his 75th Anniversary history of the BES that:

“Not only did the war bring to an end foreign excursions, but it ruptured the often close links with German scholars. It meant an inevitable dislocation of plans and careers …”

This paragraph could stand as an epitaph for so many scientific and cultural groups including the botanists and zoologists, gardeners, zoo and botanic garden staff that I have been researching for the World War Zoo Gardens project.

Sydney Edward Brock (1883 – 1918)

Another one of the “deaths and dislocations caused by the First World War”  noted by Sheail (p. 84) was ecologist and bird watcher Sydney Edward Brock (1883 – 1918), a Scottish farmer and naturalist.

Crop of the unit photograph of Captain S.E. Brock, Royal Scots MC (Image source:  Evening Dispatch - December 3rd 1915, via http://www.ww1daleboys.com/2nd10thcyclistbatt.htm website.

Crop of the unit photograph of Captain S.E. Brock, Royal Scots MC (Image source: Evening Dispatch – December 3rd 1915, via http://www.ww1daleboys.com/2nd10thcyclistbatt.htm website.

“Farmer, Naturalist and Soldier” Sydney Brock was a Captain, 10th Cyclist Battalion, Royal Scots, MC (Military Cross) who died of wounds on Armistice Day 11 November 1918 in a UK military hospital and is buried in Kirkliston Burial Ground, Lothian, Scotland. He was the son of tenant farmer (of the Hopetoun House estates) James Easton Brock (d. 1903) and Harriet Brock of Overton Farm, Kirkliston, Linlithgowshire and left a sister Florence and brother Dr. Arthur John Brock M.D. to whom his medals were sent. His WW1 medal record card suggests that he entered France on active service on 21 May 1918. He also has a CWGC website record. He does not appaer to have been listed on the British Ecological Society membership list but is mentioned in Shaeil’s book.

Sydney Brock’s Obituary in British Birds:
For most of the material of the present notice we are indebted to an appreciative sketch by Mr. W. Evans in the Scottish Naturalist, 1919, pp. 27-8. Sydney Edward Brock, Captain 10th Battalion Royal Scots, was descended from a west Lothian family and was born on October 6th, 1883, at Overton, near Kirkliston. He was educated at Kirkliston and Edinburgh, and about 1904 succeeded his father as tenant of the farm where he was born. There is reason to believe that he had in his mind the preparation of a Fauna of Linlithgowshire, where the greater part of his life was spent.

Although chiefly interested in bird-life he had acquired considerable knowledge of some of the lesser worked groups of insects, and of late years had devoted special attention to ecological problems. Most of his contributions to science appeared in the Annals of Scottish Natural History from 1906 onward, but he also wrote for the Zoologist, and the volume for 1910 contains some original observations on the fledging periods of birds (p. 117), and a very careful paper on “The Willow-Wrens of a Lothian Wood ” (pp. 401-417).

His most important contribution to British Birds was a thoughtful and suggestive paper on “Ecological Relations of Bird-Distribution” in British Birds, VIII., pp. 30-44, [1914]. There was every reason to expect much good work in the future from such a careful and good observer, but with the outbreak of the war came a break in his activities in this field.

While on active service in France [Brock] made notes on the bird-life of the Peronne district, which are still [1919] in MS., but on October 16th, 1918, he was severely wounded in action at Courtrai, and died in a military hospital at Aberdeen, from the effects of his wounds, on November 11th, the day on which hostilities ceased. His early death is a serious loss to British ornithology, especially in the department of Ecology and the study of the fauna of the Scottish lowlands. F.C.R.J.”

Brock’s second paper “Bird-associations in Scotland” was published posthumously in 1921 in Scottish Naturalists 11-21 and 49-58.

Brock is pictured centre mid row, a tall man, in 1915 with his fellow officers of the 2nd / 10th Cyclist Battalion, Royal Scots. He appears to have already enlisted by 1914, as a Territorial soldier for an S.E. Brock was gazetted a Lieutenant  in the 8th Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment) on 24.12.1902 (London Gazette, p. 8846, 23 Dec 1902).

Brock appears to have served for two years in defence of the UK:

“After the sanction of the War Office for the raising of second-line units was received, Lieut.-Colonel E. Peterkin, V.D., raised the 2/10th Royal Scots by the 24th September 1914, after a recruiting campaign of less than a week. The battalion was accordingly mobilised at Bathgate on the 13th October, 1914 but it was not till the 11th January 1915 that uniforms and the necessary military equipment began to arrive. With Berwick as their centre, the 2/10th Royal Scots, a cyclist battalion, became responsible for a share in the defence of the East coast, and from May 1916 furnished drafts for overseas service. The battalion went into camp at Coldingham in June 1916, and its chief thrills were caused by air raids and by reports of hostile landings …” from p. 739, Chapter 39, History of the 2/10th Royal Scots by Major John Ewing MC

By 1916, on the Armadale website, it quotes that 90% of this Territorial Force were serving overseas with other units such as Brock with the 12th Battalion,Royal Scots.

The Supplement to the London Gazette 4 October 1919 gives details of Brock’s gallantry award of the Military Cross:

Captain Sydney Edward Brock, 10th Bn., R. Scots. T.F. (attd. 12 Bn.).
For most conspicuous gallantry at the bridgehead at Cuerne on 17th Oct., 1918. He led part of his company over the bridge,under very heavy enemy fire, in an entirely exposed position, displaying great coolness and disregard of danger, and setting a most inspiring example to his men.

A family gravestone at Kirkliston can be seen online at the Brock genealogy website and the churchyard on Find A Grave website. There is more about the Brock family (some of whom emigrated) and Kirkliston area

Sheail notes that ecologists and botanists lamented the lack of use of their skills made by the authorities during the First World War, a situation slightly different in WW2, which has its own interesting section Part 3 which begins  (p 121 “Anniversaries are necessarily arbitrary affairs” in Sheail’s excellent book (out of print copies available on Amazon, Abe Books etc). Arthur Tansley notes the period in British ecology following the First World War as one of “quiescence”, after the energetic formation of the Society in 1913, despite the birth of techniques such as aerial photography for surveying and vegetation mapping.

There is more about soldier naturalists in Richard Van Emden’s Tommy’s Ark: Soldiers and their Animals in the Great War which we previously  reveiwed / blog posted about in 2012.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , ,

One Response to “Lost Ecologists of the First World War”

  1. Remembering ecologist A.S. Marsh Somerset Light Infantry killed 5 January 1916 | Worldwarzoogardener1939's Blog Says:

    […] 2014 we wrote a short piece about the members of the British Ecological Society lost in […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: