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The Role of Birds in World War One (cover)

Publisher: Pen & Sword History, Barnsley

Publication Year: 2022

Binding: Hardback

Page Count: 232

ISBN Number: 9781399070560

Price: £ 21.99

The Role of Birds in World War One: How Ornithology Helped to Win the Great War

In a follow-up to last year’s The Role of Birds in World War Two: How Ornithology Helped to Win the War, Nicholas Milton has produced another fascinating book exploring the role played by birds in 20th century conflict. Described as “The Best Birdwatching Army Ever Sent to War”, the British Expeditionary Force included hundreds of both professional and amateur ornithologists. This book covers a number of their stories, starting with the Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of war, Sir Edward Grey, winding its way through individuals such as the British Army’s Official Rat Catcher, Philip Gosse, and Thomas Mills, who had the idea to try to gain military advantage by training gulls at sea to detect submarine periscopes. The birds themselves are by no means forgotten, from reports of House Martins sensing overhead Zeppelins to the work of the British Army Carrier Pigeon Service.

Birdwatching increased in popularity throughout the war, and it became one of the most popular pastimes in the trenches. From the Skylark, whose song could still be heard over the din of battle, to the report of a Blackbird so undisturbed by the fighting that it built its nest inside a horse-drawn field gun, the book highlights the resilience of nature and how this contributed to the soldiers’ welfare and mental health. As well as more traditional birdwatching it also highlights opportunities that presented themselves for slightly more unusual research, such as the French pilot who published observations on bird flight which he had made at altitude.

The book concludes with an ‘Ornithological Roll of Honour’, a tribute to 37 ornithologists who lost their lives during the Great War. Comprising professional ornithologists, amateur birders, bird artists and photographers, the stories of their lives and their contribution to ornithology before and during the war serve as a poignant reminder of what they might have gone on to achieve. Like it’s World War Two companion, this is an easy-to-read work packed with interesting and often moving details about an unusual subject. With consideration of both ornithology and historical context, it should appeal to anyone with an interest in either field.

Book reviewed by Lesley Hindley

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