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The Tree Heroes of World War One

There cannot be many people who think about trees and their role in the First World War. Here then, is a remembering of trees and how they served us from across the world and the active roles they still have to play. Join me as we travel through Europe on a quest to discover their legacy as WW1 heroes.

Tree symbol of hope to soldiers
On 1 July 2016, thousands of volunteers took part in a modern memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

The great forests of Europe were decimated, not just by the war itself, but also by the need for the resources to fuel it.

“Modern war is a conflict between national resources brought into use by the contending armies. The country without these resources, of which wood is one, will be defeated before the battle is won.” Stated the editors of the American Forestry Magazine, in 1919

This was published by the American Forestry Association who understood the importance wood played in the Great War.

Walnut was an especially valued wood, used in the production of gunstocks, ships and airplane propellers. Europe’s supplies of walnut trees were quickly depleted.

The United States then became the primary source for walnut. So valuable was this wood, President Wilson enlisted the Boy Scouts of America to identify and tag every walnut tree in the country. All citizens were asked to donate walnut trees in support of the war production effort. From the wealthy Guggenheim estate, to the farmer, to the urban dweller, Americans shared their walnut trees.

Where the trees remained, they breathed hope by reminding people of the existence of an order before chaos.

The tree lined roads of Europe left a strong impression on the soldiers, in particular those came from the Commonwealth, upon seeing the European landscapes for the first time. They inspired in 1915, the wish of the British officer Gillespie to see created at the end of the war, a route of pilgrimage in the form of a “long path (…) from Vosges to the sea”

The concept of tree lined roads originated in Italy in the 1600s. In 1756, the Intendant (general administrator) of Etigny in southern France gave the order that “new trees should be planted to replace all those that die, with penalties payable for failing to do so” (Reverdy 1997). In 1802, D. Depradt suggested that two trees should be planted for every one cut down – a requirement already enforced in some countries.

At the end of the war, memory paths were created in Australia, New Zealand, in Canada, in the United States, in Great Britain, in Italy, inspired, directly or indirectly by European roads lined with trees. You can see my previous article for examples around the world of memorial trees, avenues and forests.

In America

The Memorial Tree, “the tree that looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray”, has become the tribute of the people of the nation to those who offered their lives to their country in the Great War for Civilization” and placed the article below in a parade of papers in January 1919.

 Memorial Tree planting, 1919-1920: Boy Scouts, Mrs. Harding (2), President Coolidge, Mrs. Coolidge and Girl Scouts, Library of Congress.
Memorial Tree planting, 1919-1920: Boy Scouts, Mrs. Harding (2), President Coolidge, Mrs. Coolidge and Girl Scouts, Library of Congress.

Thankfully countries across Europe are recognising the need to protect their tree lined roads. In France for example;

In an audit of local road safety policies, the French authorities recognised the need for ... for genuine safety policies for the road environment, incorporating the new concept of calm driving and a respect for our natural heritage” (Inspection générale de l’Administration, Conseil général des Ponts et Chaussées, Inspection de la Gendarmerie nationale, Inspection de la Police nationale 2007).

Below we see the price paid by trees and the environment in the war out in in the battle field.

Trees also played an important role in guiding travellers and troops during snowy or foggy weather, in times of flooding and by night, as well as functioning as a protective barrier. As trees became more and more broken and blasted on the approach to the front, they became a key for reading the imminence of battle.

Trees have an ability to be bearers of the historical memory of a territory, whose trunk is able to imprison the passing of time preserving the articles of war, such as projectiles, cartridge cases and firearms. Memory and nature are deeply connected.

In Russia the forests there have captured moments in battle from the 1800’s through to the 1940’s.

The trunks bear the mark of history, they are pervaded by the traces of war. But they survived becoming custodians of war memories, some of them very personal. There are shovels, guns and even helmets embedded in the trees.

At the same time these trees and others like them become bearers of a message of strength and hope. For despite the deep wounds, life has prevailed. The forest of Verdun in France has managed to grow despite huge quantities of arsenic and other chemicals in the ground. Somehow the trees hang to life. (You can see more in my previous article here)

The important role trees have had to play, both during the war and since, are now being celebrated across the world.

An art exhibition in Italy the artwork looks in particular at memory and it’s legacy for future generations. ‘Trees Remember Too’ highlights the deep relationship that man has with nature, and how it becomes a privileged channel for the expression of memo

Photo by L. Pullen

In ‘Memory Tree’s, family memories and land memories come together in a work that artificially reproduces the natural conglomeration system: small objects set inside a natural resin and then grafted into the stems of the trees, become natural treasure chests of precious memories; family, personal and historical memories, intertwine proposing new reflections on the phenomenon of the First World War, investigating the legacies and heritage to the new generations. The exhibition is from November the 4th to December the 2nd, on Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday, 10.30 am-6.30pm at B#Side Gallery, Vicolo Isola di Mezzo 3/5, 31100, Treviso, Italy.

Meanwhile just after the centenary of Veteran's Day, the international, first academic conference to be entirely devoted to the paths of trees in France, puts a spotlight on this history and on the value and commitment shown to these trees today in the different countries by both citizens and the public authorities.

By underlining the capacity of paths to create links and to serve the idea of cohesion and of peace, ‘Colloquium’ aims at encouraging memories of places by paths, already existent or by recreating the plantation of cross-border paths, tangible signs of strong relations between citizens and countries. The International colloquium "The paths of trees, of war in peace " takes place 12 and 13 November, 2018

Trees have been a resource, thousands upon thousands felled for the war effort. They acted as sign posts for soldiers marching to battle. Trees have become vessels of memory both as witnesses to the battles they survived and as memorial trees planted to mark those killed. They have acted as guides and protectors. They grow pathways making visible the relationships between nations. They are a focus for communities to gather together. They grow as an act of peace.

Trees are a symbol for hope.

The Peace of Trees.

When you think of History

Spare a moment for the trees

Lands that were once so green

Then no longer to be seen

In battle man will have his way

But animals & trees have no say

Trees stand tall, silent and wise

As arguments pass them by

So if peace we want to see

Take a lesson from a tree

Sit under a tree and bide your time

And remember this little rhyme.

As we remember the great forests destroyed in World War One, so too do we remember the destruction of all those destroyed in modern conflicts. We remember the trees and all of the lives and ecosystems they sustain that have been lost.

With thanks from Amanda Claire Ancient and Sacred Tree Founder

Do you have something you would like to share on this subject or anything else to do with trees? This blog is by members for members. It is free to join us and you are very welcome to write articles and send in pictures.

These are the links I used for this article.


Really thought provoking and interesting post. Thankyou.

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