“The larks are singing beautifully and today I saw the first swallow this season…”
The words describe a magical moment that could be any spring day in rural Tasmania. They paint a vivid picture: a clear, impossibly blue sky, a fluttering skylark high above, its sweet song cascading from the heavens and drifting across field and paddock. And the swallows carry the promise of summer on their wings.
The words were, in fact, penned by a 25-year soldier, Maurice Charles Thompson, not from Tasmania, but from the trenches of northern France in April 1918. Thompson was a gunner with the First Australian Imperial Force. He was also a keen birdwatcher and in his letters to his family he recorded his observations.
He was not alone. A total of 48 members of the Royal Australian Ornithological Union, along with an unknown number from the Bird Observers’ Club of Australia, enlisted during World War I and early editions of a birdwatchers’ magazine hold a number of reports of the birds they encountered. The words flew thick and fast first from Egypt to the now famous battlefields of Gallipoli, Palestine, France and Belgium.
The reports in The Emu describe white wagtails along the Suez Canal, migratory storks and raptors crossing the Jordon Rift Valley in Palestine, and the spring dawn chorus across the trenches cut into the muddy fields and shattered woodlands of Fromelles, Pozieres, Passchendaele and the Somme.
An anonymous contributor to The Emu wrote of two sparrows flying through the trenches of Gallipoli, finally perching on his hand as he watched three battleships shelling Turkish positions close by.
“The sparrows preened their feathers and chirped at each other for fully a minute before flying away. This was while high explosive shells were screaming overhead at only a few second intervals and bursting less than 100 years away.”
Another Digger, Corporal Percy Smith, took time out between stoushes with “Johnny Turk” to pen this report.
“Strange things happen in the trenches at times. One of the most extraordinary was the finding of a bird’s nest with four eggs. While going through the communications trenches a small bird was seen to fly out of the side, and I began to look where it came from. A shell had burst in the trench, and dirt had fallen off the sides. Among the larger pieces of earth was a neatly woven bird’s nest with four eggs in it.”
The skylark, and its joyful song even on the darkest of days, remains the stand-out in bird observations, among both the Anzac contingent and the other troops from the British Empire fighting alongside them.
The skylark remains as powerful an image from the Western Front as the red poppies, which bloomed on the bloody soil freshly turned by hand-to-hand fighting and shelling.
It might be conjecture about events that unfolded a century ago, but I am sure the skylarks would have cemented a bond between both British and Australian troops.
The skylark might originally hail from Europe and the Middle East but it now has its own place in Australian folklore, having been introduced here in Victorian times.
As in Britain, it is the bird of spring in Tasmania, in full voice with its beautiful song just as the welcome swallows are arriving. The song is a high-pitched, musical warbling which continues during a sometimes lengthy flight. At such times, male skylarks spread fluttering wings to hang in the sky. The song carries far and wide to declare territory of paddock and grassland, and to impress perspective mates.
The skylark has been much in the news in Britain recently, and it has nothing to do with the momentous anniversaries to mark man’s wars. The skylark population is in freefall in Britain, crashing by about 50 per cent in the past 20 years. The effect of industrial agriculture is been blamed, which sees the insects on which the skylarks feed killed by insecticides and intensive crop rotations giving the skylarks no chance to breed in their favoured nesting sites amid tufts of grass and other vegetation on the ground.
Gunner Thompson never had a chance to hear a skylark spring back home in Australia. He was badly wounded in an early morning shell attack on April 9, 1918, and died later the same day at the 15th Casualty Clearing Station at Ebblinghem in northern France. He was 25.