Remembering ecologist A.S. Marsh Somerset Light Infantry killed 5 January 1916

Captain Alfred Stanley Marsh (1892-1916)

a s marsh 8th Battalion

From the Somerset Remembers website, a photo of officer of the 8th Battlion Somerset Light Infantry – is Alfred Marsh amongst them?


In 2014 we wrote a short piece about the members of the British Ecological Society lost in WW1.

One  ‘bright scholar’ of the early British Ecological Society  (BES) 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 John Sheail’s book about the BES he is called ‘Albert’ Stanley Marsh.)

Marsh’s posthumous work was published by British ecologist and psychologist Arthur or A.G. Tansley in 1917, who had been unfit for military service and worked as a clerk in munitions.

Marsh’s experiments on competitive 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 (see endpiece of this post)

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 obituary and  a unit photograph.  Sections from the 8th Battalion war diary,  5 January 1916 mention Marsh:

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

Some interesting comments turned up through our previous blogpost and that on the Somerset Remembers website:

In Everard Wyrall’s SLI 1914-18 at p 77 there is also a reference to Lt Marsh being sent with his platoon along the Hulluch-Lens Road (September 26 1915 – 8 SLI heavily engaged in the Battle of Loos.) He appears to have been specially selected and was very much an upfront officer.
On the ‘What Might Have Been Lost Generation’ point : ASM’s younger brother Ralph Warren died aged 92 years on 29 February 1992 – fruit tree pathologist and former Assistant Director at Long Ashton Research Station. He served as honorary editor of Annals of Applied Biology from 1946 and edited the first book to be published on Systemic Fungicides. He had been appointed mycologist at the U of Bristol’s Dept of Agri and Horticulture during the 1926 General Strike and was appointed OBE on retirement. He had been president of the British Mycological Society. According to the FT obit ‘His sharpness of mind, delightful sense of humour and his humility, endeared him not only to the colleagues who were privileged to work with him, but all those who knew him only in retirement for these gifts continued undiminished to the end.’ As a Somerset man who would have known all about apple pathology and the photograph does rather remind one of a cheerful Cox’s Pippin.
It had long been a legend that my father’s mother had cousins who went to Cambridge and the legend turned out to be true. At least there’s an indication here of what glories ASM would inevitably have achieved. RWM ‘combined an insistence on scientific accuracy and clarity with a remarkable gift for literary dexterity for improvement of texts with minimal alterations’ – which sounds very much in line with his older brother’s abilities.

Geoff Orton

This  ‘What Might Have Been Lost Generation’ point is partly what motivates the World War Zoo Gardens project, wondering what human potential  was lost to zoos and botanic gardens from the impact of WW1 and WW2.

Another Somerset Remembers comment by Michael Day lists Marsh’s  Trinity College Cambridge links:

Captain Marsh also features in the list of Trinity men that died in the First World War, as published on the Trinity College Chapel web pages:

“Marsh, Alfred Stanley
Born Feb. 1, 1892, at Crewkerne, Somerset. Son of William Warren Marsh. Sexey’s School, Bruton, Somerset. Admitted as Entrance Exhibitioner and Subsizar at Trinity, June 25, 1909. College Natural Sciences Prize. Senior Scholar 1911. BA 1912. Captain, 8th Somerset Light Infantry. Killed in action Jan. 5/6, 1916. Buried in Cité Bonjean Military Cemetery, Armentières, France.”

The information was compiled from the University War List, Forces War Records and the CWGC.

PDF file at:

Marsh’s cemetery and headstone

On the CWGC website entry for him there is more about his headstone and his cemetery.

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

Marsh’s cemetery

On the TWGPP website is a photo of Marsh’s headstone:

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?”). The cemetery  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 Military 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.

References: 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.

Endpiece – Marsh’s New Phytologist obituary

In case you are unable to download this journal, here is Marsh’s obituary reprinted from the New Phytologist Obituary 20, 132-6, 1916 by A.G. Tansley, an obituary that can stand in for many young, educated and promising officers of his generation.


On  January 6th, Captain A. S. Marsh of the 8th (Service) Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry was shot through the heart by a sniper as he was passing a gap in the trench parapet near Armentieres. Marsh was not 24 years old when he died and

in him we have lost a botanist full of love for his subject and of promise for the future.

Marsh was the son of Mr. W. W. Marsh of Blacknell, Crewkerne, in Somerset, where he was born on February 1st, 1892. He entered Sexey’s School at Bruton in 1903 with a Junior County Scholarship, and was a great success throughout his School career both in examinations and in the general life of the school. He gained two more county scholarships and also first-class honours in the Senior Oxford Local Examination, and took a conspicuous part in the school debating society and in other school activities. His headmaster writes that “his energy was amazing and he never appeared to find work a burden.”

In his third year Marsh began to take a keen interest in natural history and started with great enthusiasm on the geology and botany of the district, making large collections of fossils and plants for school prizes.

Among his close school friends were several boys who did well in science at the Universities and are now doing successful research.

Marsh also showed a marked talent for languages, both at school and later. For instance, he “got up” Greek in a very short time (neither Greek nor Latin are included in the ordinary curriculum of the school), and later on he very quickly acquired a good working knowledge of German and French, spoken as well as written, in a way that impressed one as the way of a real linguist.

Marsh was considered a delicate boy when he first went to school, and was never an athlete, though his health rapidly improved, but he was a tireless walker, and always played a good game of fives, that favourite of so many students.

In December, 1908, while still under 17, Marsh entered for the scholarship examination in natural science at Trinity, Cambridge, and his work in botany was really wonderful for a boy of his age. At the time it was hard to be sure how far his high standard of knowledge was due to real scientific ability and how far to the excellent and careful teaching for which his school is well known.

But he was easily top of the candidates in botany, though by far the youngest of them, and he got an exhibition at Trinity, and the same year the Drapers’ Company’s “Soley” Scholarship. He came into residence at Trinity in Octoher, 1909, and later on obtained a foundation scholarship there.

Of his undergraduate days it is difficult for one who was not his contemporary to write at all adequately. He was modest and reticent in demeanour, with a strong sense of humour and a pretty gift of irony, and he always gave one the impression of a great deal of personality beneath the quiet surface. One of his friends writes of “that sudden intense keenness and sparkling interest that used to bubble up when he was aroused about something and wanted to carry you with him. It was a great charm . . . .”

Apart from the talent for languages, which has been already mentioned, he had distinctly literary tastes. Especially, as one of his close friends writes, was he attracted to the quaint or the bizarre.

He contributed some excellent stuff to the humorous Cambridge Botany School “Tea-Phyt-ologist,” an erratic production — it can hardly he called a periodical — of which three numbers appeared at irregular intervals. For his work he always showed a genuine love.

After getting a first class in Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1912, he took Botany for Part II in 1913. During the last year or so before the final examination, perhaps he scattered his interest too much to be good for his botany and he rather neglected some parts of the subject, so that though he got a first-class he did not get it too easily. After his Tripos he was awarded the Frank Smart studentship in botany and migrated to Caius.

His favourite subjects in botany were ecology and taxonomy, but his interests were very wide and he definitely refused after his Tripos to confine himself to one line of research. During the long vacation of 1913 he carried out (with help from several others in the laborious work of surveying) the main part of an investigation of the vegetation of the salt marsh and sand dunes at Holme just north of Hunstanton in Norfolk. This work he continued at intervals till the summer of 1914, and the results were published in “The maritime ecology of Holme-next-the-Sea, Norfolk ” (Journal of Ecology, June, 1915). For the lines on which it was conceived this is an admirable and admirably executed piece of work, bringing out very clearly certain of the edaphic relations of the salt marsh vegetation.

In the long vacation of 1913, Marsh also carried out a small investigation on Cycad anatomy, “Notes on the anatomy of Statigeria paradoxa” (New Phytologist, Jan., 1914).

A large part of the winter of 1913-14 he devoted to investigating the anatomy of some xerophilous ferns and the results of this work were critically presented in “The anatomy of some xerophilous species of Cheilanthes  and Pellcea ” (Annals of Botany, October, 1914).

Stimulated by the sudden appearance of Azolla in large quantities in a ditch by Jesus Close, he also at this time put together a summary of the curious sporadic occurrences of the two species of this plant in Western Europe — “The history of the occurrence of Azolla in the British Isles and in Europe generally” (Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, February, 1914). All his papers are marked not only by sound critical ability, but by a certain distinction of style. One of his friends says “his precision in the use of language was a constant spur to a careless person like myself.”

Perhaps Marsh’s most promising work was his attack upon the conditions of competition between two closely allied  species naturally inhabiting different types of soil, when grown in competition under controlled conditions on the two soils. The experiments he devised were already bringing good results when he left Cambridge to join the army.

In the spring and summer of 1914, Marsh was carrying on this work, finishing his Holme paper and collecting material for some research on the Ranales that he had in view. At midsummer several of us spent a fortnight or three weeks in Provence, for the study of the vegetation between Marseilles and the Maritime Alps. Marsh was of the party and revelled in his introduction to the vegetation of so distinct a climate and in his first glimpse of the high alpines. On his return to Cambridge, he demonstrated, as he had done the summer before, for Dr. Moss’s field classes. For some time previously he had demonstrated in the elementarybotany and elementary biology practical classes.

We were all rather dazed by the outbreak of war early in August and I remember Marsh reading Treitschke and trying hard to get the German standpoint. As un-militarist by nature as he could be, he evidently did some hard thinking away from Cambridge during September and when he came up in mid-October he at once joined the O.T.C. and put in every afternoon at the preliminary training. At the end of the month or early in November he applied for an infantry commission and

in less than three weeks was given a commission as second lieutenant in the 8th battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry. I well remember his excitement when he showed me the letter—he was like a girl with the invitation to her first ball.

He joined his regiment within a week, and put in ten months of hard training hefore going to the front. I saw him only three or four times during that period ; generally when he got leave for a day or two he came over to Cambridge and stayed at my house. In March he told me he was beginning to feel his feet, and indeed it was quite evident from his talk that he was getting a real grip of the work and of his men : in April he got his lieutenancy.

His battalion went to France early in September 1915  and his first letter to me after that was about half full of the botany of the region where they were in billets.

At Loos, his battalion was in support and was heavily shelled and sniped during the German counter attacks. The casualties were heavy, especially among the officers. As Marsh expressed it in a wonderfully vivid and very characteristic letter to another friend,

” We were told that once we got the Germans on the run it would he all right, but they had the audacity to counter-attack ! . . . The high explosives dazed the men and the snipers slaughtered the officers.”

Then—after giving a (for him) quite exceptional glimpse of the after effect on his mind of the scenes he saw at Loos—he breaks off:

“If you are fond of Antirrhinum orontium, this is the country for


He promised to tell me all about Loos the first time he came home on leave, but that was never to be. Marsh’s own company, “A”,  got off fairly lightly, and he escaped unscathed, but so heavy were the officer casualties that Marsh got his captaincy immediately, and commanded the battalion when it was soon afterwards inspected by the King.

Then came the regular routine of alternating trenches and billets till January 1916, when, just before he was to come home on leave, he was killed.

Marsh was, I believe, just beginning to find himself mentally when he joined the army, and it is impossible to say what he would have done if he had lived to return to botany, as he certainly would. I should not describe the work he actually did as “brilliant” though it was distinguished in style and of very excellent quality.

He was very young — only 22 when he got his commission. His talents were certainly remarkable and his love for his subject most undoubted. I fancy his experience in the army was having a great effect on his character, which would have been evident when he returned to scientific work. I am sure he felt that here was a very serious joh and though it might he, at any rate at first, an uncongenial job, it was up to him to make good in it. He certainly did make good. His brains and his underlying grit told, for all that he was a peace-loving student by nature and inclination.

Though far from being “typically English ” in mentality and tastes, he had some of the best English qualities—modesty, reticence, humour, pluck, and gaiety under trying conditions. One of his friends says that during the training, Marsh gave him the impression of acting from a sense of duty and of never being really keen on the work, though he did not confess anything of the kind. It may have been so: he did not give me that impression, but simply that of a man who put all of himself, as a man should, into the job he had taken.

His humour stood him in very good stead. “He was so cheerful — everything was always a joke” writes one of his brother officers. He evidently had a real hold on his fellows in the army.

“I’ve never known a captain so much liked by his men ” says one : “Nearly all the men spoke of him in tbeir letters” written just after his death. And his servant wrote: “He was not only respected, but loved.” He had the same hold on tbose who knew him well at Cambridge, and, quite apart from his scientific promise, his loss is very bitter to those who loved him.

written by A.G.Tansley

There is a portrait and biography of ecologist Arthur Tansley on Wikipedia A G Tansley here.

A.S. Marsh, Remembered.

Posted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens, Newquay Zoo.



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