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All Quiet on the Western Front

(Originally written for the Parish Magazine by Keith Wellstead)

All Quiet on the Western Front is a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. After the Bible, it was probably the first translated book I ever read, certainly the first by a German author and definitely the first from someone who had been on the ‘other side’ in WW2.

The book describes the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental stress during WW1, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front. Interestingly, in Nazi Germany, the book was banned and burnt. Around the same time I read ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ I started to read the British war poets and Richard Attenborough’s powerful anti-war film, ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ was released. All these factors, coming together at such an impressionable age, created a strong anti-war feeling within me – it also coincided with the Vietnam war!

Last month I wrote an article called, ‘Food is ammunition’ showing that in times of war we seem to take our food security so much more seriously than we do now. The messages about growing your own, avoiding waste, reusing/recycling are, for me, equally as important today as they were in the two World Wars. What the article didn’t bring out was the mental well-being aspects of gardening in general, and vegetable gardening in particular, even in times of war.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this fact is shown in the trenches of World War 1. One of the most surprising and little known stories I’ve found out about the war when researching for this article is that of Trench Gardens. Soldiers grew flowers and vegetables at the Front, bringing humanity to the squalor of the trenches. There are photographs of soldiers carrying watering cans along the duckboards to water their improvised gardens. Celery, it turns out, grew well in the dark dankness of the trench bottom. There is also a surviving Military Medal in the Imperial War Museum for the best vegetables grown on the Western front.

When I came across this small snippet of history about how ordinary life goes on amid the horror of war I was impressed by the spirit it must have taken to tend plants knowing that in the morning it might be your turn to go over the top. Now there were 475 miles of trenches and they stayed much the same for much of the war. As ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ depicts much of war is boring. I guess that gardening was not just an attempt to stave off homesickness but also something for active men to do when caught in the frustration and fear of the waiting game.

Although, thankfully, our lives are not as pressured as those of the soldiers, growing is once again being recognized for its positive impact on health and well-being. The Thrive charity does great work using Horticulture to bring about positive change to the lives of people who are living with disabilities or ill health, or are isolated, disadvantaged or vulnerable. South Warwickshire NHS trust is one of 3 pilot trusts in England working with Food for Life to take the great work they’ve been doing in our schools on healthy eating into the health sector.

As part of this, Warwick Hospital is planning a gar-den, with fruit and vegetables at its heart, for the use of staff and patients. Heathcote Rehabilitation Hospital already has a lovely garden that is used in the rehabilitation process that is being updated, including the laying of more uneven paths to help patients get used to the paths they will face on the mean streets of Warwick District! Gar-den Organic recently published a great fact sheet on using growing as a means of helping people with dementia and another on the benefits of gardening on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and being happy.

The Warwickshire Master Gardener programme is now a partnership with Warwickshire Public Health, with the aim to support local people in becoming healthier and happier citizens.

If you need any advice / support on growing great fresh fruit and vegetables contact your happy Master Gardeners Susan Watt or I on:

suzwatt@gmail.com or 07711 498047

keithwellsted@btconnect.com or 0771 8196577