Sunday book review – The Role of Birds in World War One by Nicholas Milton

This is Nicholas Milton’s third book this year – I’m tempted to say ‘so far’ – after The Role of Birds in World War Two and The Secret Life of the Adder.  That’s quite an output considering that each of them is well-researched, well-written and covers areas where the author has quite a specialised interest and knowledge.

This volume has two forewords (by the RSPB’s Chief Executive and the Luc Hoffman Professor of Ornithology at the Edward Grey Institute at Oxford), six chapters but also a long ‘ornithological roll of honour’ of British ornithologists who died during the conflict. That list is very moving, particularly on Armistice Sunday, and contains a list of servicemen (all men) killed in action which includes the likes of Frederick Selous, Edward Thomas and a long list of now mostly forgotten names. Perhaps most poignantly, the last record, Sydney Brock, was one of 850 Allied soldiers who were killed on 11 November 1918 before peace was called at 11am.

Chapter 1 is devoted to the birdwatching Foreign Secretary, Lord Grey of Fallodon, whose phrase about the lamps going out all over Europe summed up his detestation of war. He is still the longest-serving Foreign Secretary (11 years to the very day (cf Dominic Raab, 13 days)). Prof Ben Sheldon’s foreword, from the Oxford institute that carries Grey’s name forward, is a thoughtful introduction to the book.  Beccy Speight picks up on the role that the young RSPB had in combatting misguided moves by the Board of Agriculture and the National Farmers Union to cull House Sparrows as pests of cereals. Farming had to wait until the 1970s to get rid of House Sparrows and many other farmland birds from our countryside by less noticeable but more effective methods.

Despite greatly liking Nicholas Milton’s previous two books this year, I think this is the best of a very fine trio and it goes into my shortlist of Books of 2022.

The cover?  Excellent, both front and back, in contrasting the beauty of the birds with the ugliness of human conflict. 9/10 from me.

The Role of Birds in World War One: how ornithology helped to win the Great War by Nicholas Milton is published by Pen and Sword.


3 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Role of Birds in World War One by Nicholas Milton”

  1. On the same topic, do you know of a book about the way the area of the Western Front has recovered ecologically (or not) in the hundred years since the war? Some very interesting stuff here: (and in the ‘Iron Harvest’ link at the bottom). To think that one hundred years later some areas are still untouchable, and even have nothing growing. That never gets mentioned in the remembrance.

  2. 2 points from a letter collection of the naturalist W H St. Quintin (1851-1933) of Scampston Hall: 20 letters of Sir Edward Grey reveal that despite his role as Foreign Secretary in the run up to WW1, he seemed happiest when caring for his wildfowl on his pond at home in Falloden; and the entomologist Harold Powell commented on White Storks altering their usual migration route in Autumn 1914 to avoid guns on the war front by crossing the Mediterranean via Hyères in France instead of keeping to land thermals via Gibraltar or the Levant.

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