A garden in a war desert Zonnebeke Ypres 1915 by Herbert Cowley

Herbert Cowley's article "A Garden in a War Desert", The Garden Illustrated journal June 26, 1915

Herbert Cowley’s article “A Garden in a War Desert”, The Garden Illustrated journal June 26, 1915

The April 1915 RHS lecture  on “Informal and Wild Gardening” by James Hudson was reprinted over several issues of The Garden weekly journal alongside  interesting articles by former Kew Gardener and The Garden sub-editor Herbert Cowley, away serving at the front. His own writing on war-ravaged gardens  in the same journal proved an interesting and ironic counterpoint to James Hudson’s more studied and peaceful ideas of wildness and beauty.

Herbert Cowley (1885-1967) from his Kew Guild journal obituary 1968

Herbert Cowley (1885-1967) from his Kew Guild journal obituary 1968

Cowley was at the time serving with the 12th County of London Regiment (The Rangers) who had been in France and action  since Christmas Day. He is likely to have been a prewar Territorial with this short four number (2477) to have embarked so soon. His battalion are featured in a propaganda or recruiting film at the time: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060010035

Our Sub Editor wounded in action ran the headline in The Garden, May 8 1915:

“for the past eight days we have been in severe battle. I am slightly wounded by shell – only a bruised rib and am in hospital. Dreadful warfare is till raging … We must win …”

Shortly afterwards, as  fighting continued in the Second Battle of Ypres, Rifleman H. Cowley 2477 was home with a Blighty wound that would finish his military career and was recovering in  Surgical 7, 3rd Southern General Hospital in Oxford “wounded in the knee while bandaging another soldier in the trenches.”


Before this Cowley had been writing home about the horticultural sights “somewhere in France or Belgium” on page 169 of the April 10th, 1915 issue of The Garden. Previous mention by various readers had been made of sending flower and veg seeds to serving soldiers:

“the suggestion re quick growing seeds is excellent. Delightful instances are now to be seen of dugouts, covered with verdant green turf, garden plots divided by red brick and clinker paths suggestive of an Italian garden design. Some plots are now bright with cowslips, Lesser celandine and fresh green leaves of the cuckoo-pint, wild flowers obviously lifted from meadows and ditches nearby. Yet the roar of heavy guns and the roll of rifle fire are incessant. Verily the Briton is a born gardener …”

These are the kind of ‘trench gardens‘ that Kenneth Helphand writes about in Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime and his legacy website www.defiantgardens.com

Herbert Cowley's article "A Garden in a War Desert", The Garden Illustrated journal June 26, 1915

Herbert Cowley’s article “A Garden in a War Desert”, The Garden Illustrated journal June 26, 1915

In the June 26 1915 edition of The Garden Illustrated, the convalescent Cowley  wrote about “A Garden in the War Desert” that  he had observed in the ruined walled garden of Zonnebeke Chateau at Zonnebeke near Ypres in Belgium:


This article proves to be an interesting piece of Great War prose or reportage, vivid in its description of early wartime destruction, ‘Romantic’ in its lost or secret garden associations of ruin and verdant wildness.

Herbert Cowley’s last battle May 1915

12th London Rangers history - Zonnebeke 1915

12th London Rangers history – Zonnebeke 1915

This article by Cowley can be read alongside the Regimental History which mentions Zonnebeke: https://archive.org/stream/rangershistorica00whee#page/32/mode/2up

12th London Rangers - Ypres May 1915 battles

12th London Rangers – Ypres May 1915 battles

The May 1915 battles where Cowley was wounded are recounted here: https://archive.org/stream/rangershistorica00whee#page/35/mode/1up

1/12th London Bn in the second battle of the Ypres.

“On the night of May 2nd-3rd, the Battalion was sent to dig a trench line, fire and support trenches, on the Frezenburg ridge, and to man this, which was to become the front line in the event of a retirement from the salient at Zonnebeke taking place. This retirement took place the following night (May 3rd-4th) on which night the new line was improved.

The German artillery soon found the new line on the Frezenburg ridge, and shelled it repeatedly, causing numerous casualties. Relief by the Monmouths, eagerly looked for by the troops now wearied with the strain of many days under continual shell fire, took place on the night May 7th-8th, and the Battalion retired to dug-outs behind the G.H.Q. line, arriving about 4 a.m. Heavy shelling of these dug-outs from about 6 a.m. onwards caused numerous casualties and forbade rest.

At 11.15 a.m. came the order to advance in support of the Monmouths, the right of the Brigade line having been broken by the German advance. The Battalion, now about 200 strong, advanced with A, B and C Companies in the front line, led by Major Challen and Major Foucar, and D Company, under Captain Jones, in support, the Machine Gun Section with one gun only left, moving independently on the left flank.

The Battalion had to pass through a gap in the barbed wire in front of the G.H.Q. line on which German machine-guns were trained, and suffered heavily in its passage. The whole of the ground over which the further advance took place was heavily shelled, and in places exposed to heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, so that the Battalion rapidly dwindled. A small remnant pushed forward to the rise where the trench line had been and there dug in, and stayed the German advance. The Machine Gun Section under Lieut. J. K. Dunlop, operating independently, did extremely useful work and was able to bring enfilade fire to bear on the advancing Germans, until the gun was struck and disabled by shell fire.

Of survivors there were ultimately collected by Sergeant W. J. Hornall (every Officer having been either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner), 53, mainly pioneers and signallers. All the remainder were either taken prisoner, killed, missing or wounded.

The determination of the attack, it is said, was such that the Germans thought it could only have been made by troops sure of speedy and strong support, not, as in fact was the case, by practically the last remaining troops between them and Ypres, and so the enemy dug in without further advance, and thus was achieved the object for which so many gallant souls gave up their lives. The few survivors, after assisting to dig trenches in the vicinity for the next two or three days were ultimately withdrawn to the rest they so richly deserved.”


“There were many sad and many glorious days to come, but for sheer tragedy the Second Battle of Ypres stands out most prominently from the many vicissitudes through which the Rangers went during the War.

The brave effort on the Frezenburg ridge had brought about the end of the original Battalion. Of the Officers and men who had so whole-heartedly and unselfishly prepared themselves for war during the days of peace, only fifty-three men, headed by Sergeant Hornall, struggled out of the shell-fire and the mud and slush in front of Ypres.

Meanwhile Lieut. Withers Green, the Battalion Transport Officer, had brought up to Ypres every man of Battalion Headquarters, every detail on whom he could lay his hands, and some reinforcements that had lately arrived under Lieut. Benns and 2nd Lieut. Bentley. By May l0th, however, the German advance had been stemmed and the eighty odd men that composed Lieut. Green’s party were not needed. Accordingly they proceeded to a camp near Ypres and slept the night in some huts. It was here that Sergeant Hornall and the band of fifty-three survivors, begrimed with mud, dazed and utterly weary, reported to Lieut. Green in the early hours of May nth. They had little enough time that day to sleep and recover from their experiences, for at 5 o’clock in the afternoon the Battalion, now numbering five officers (counting Lieut. Lindop, the Quartermaster and Lieut. Uloth, the Medical Officer) and two hundred N.C.O.’s.”

Herbert Cowley would have been amongst the many wounded of this Battalion. He survived his wound,  got married at the end of 1915 and returned to his garden writing career as editor of The Garden. He died in the late 1960s after a long and busy horticultural career.

Many thanks to contributors on http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=186158 for this Regimental information.

There is more about Herbert Cowley’s recovery, life and writing career in my previous blogpost and my Wikipedia entry for him:



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2 Responses to “A garden in a war desert Zonnebeke Ypres 1915 by Herbert Cowley”

  1. AJAX Says:

    Rifleman #2477 H. Cowley volunteered with The Rangers on 4 September 1914 & was assigned to its 2ND Battalion for Basic Training.


    • worldwarzoogardener1939 Says:

      Thanks for this additional information which I will add to the body of various Cowley blogposts.



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