Wartime’s healing harvest

Dr Ian Rotherham on Sheffield's Ringinglow Bog with Sphagnum moss.
Dr Ian Rotherham on Sheffield's Ringinglow Bog with Sphagnum moss.
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A forgotten story of how Yorkshire people and the landscapes they lived in helped to save the lives of wounded soldiers during the First World War is to be told once more. Andrew Vine reports.

THEY fanned out in their thousands across the peat moors, entire villages, scout groups, classes of children, all scavenging for an unglamorous plant now most familiar from hanging baskets.

Soldiers and nurses at Longshaw, World War 1

Soldiers and nurses at Longshaw, World War 1

It was the early years of the First World War, and as the carnage mounted on the Western Front, decimating the Yorkshire volunteer – or “Pals” – battalions, the people back home were doing their bit to save lives by gathering a healing harvest from moorlands that were already making a mighty contribution to the war effort.

The villagers were in search of sphagnum moss – a key ingredient in today’s hanging baskets – and wild garlic. In that pre-penicillin world, where gangrene could kill a soldier as surely as a gunshot or blast, the surgeons on the Western Front turned back to nature.

Moss, when cleaned, dried and packed into muslin dressings, had an extraordinary capacity to absorb blood and staunch open wounds. The juice of the crushed garlic had antibiotic properties and was used to imbue the dressings.

All over the country, people were urged to gather moss and garlic. In Yorkshire, entire communities headed for peatlands such as Thorne Moors, sending what they gathered to factories for processing, yet the massive effort these ordinary people put in and its vital importance have been all but forgotten.

Until now. With next summer’s 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War just over the horizon, the story of this epic mobilisation on the home front is to be told once more, at a conference in Sheffield next week.

It has the punning title of War and Peat, but its theme could hardly be more serious – exploring the relationship between conflict and the landscape. The healing harvest is at its heart – but might have remained forgotten had it not been for 
a chance encounter in a Peak District beauty spot.

Thelma Griffiths of the National Trust estate at Longshaw, near Grindleford, was running an event about its role as a hospital for injured soldiers during the First World War. Among the visitors was Beverley Hardy, who approached her to tell how her grandmother, Doris Emma Elliott, from Stannington, in Sheffield, had worked there as a volunteer nurse in 1918, when she was 20.

As an elderly woman, Doris would go walking with Beverley, recalling how she used to collect moss around Longshaw for use in wound dressings. Her family was sceptical at first, but what she said chimed with an interview with a group of people from Holme Moss, above Holmfirth, who remembered gathering moss during the Second World War as well, though not on the scale of 1914-18.

A pattern began to emerge. The driving force behind War and Peat is writer and broadcaster Ian Rotherham, Reader in Tourism and Environmental Change at Sheffield Hallam University, who said: “I’d already picked up this issue about sphagnum being used, but we thought, ‘It’s a very small scale thing’, but it wasn’t. I managed to get hold of a couple of American reports, and it was industrial, you’ve got big factories set up to process it.

“Entire villages mobilised to go and collect sphagnum. Country Life called on schoolchildren and scout groups to go out collecting. That call to action was documented at the time, and there was a lot of information on how to do it, but since then it’s just been completely forgotten.

“You’ve got German prisoners of war sorting sphagnum in Britain. It’s sorted carefully, it’s dried, it’s packaged into muslin bags. We’ve got those calls to people to go and collect it. On the one end you’ve got these volunteers going out scavenging the landscape, and on the other when it gets to the processing, it’s being processed on a big scale.”

Moorland walkers were recruited to the cause during both wars. The magazine Northern Rambler, from June 1942, urged its readers to go collecting, and provided details of where the moss should be sent, with the promise that postage would be refunded.

The healing harvest was not the only contribution to the Great War made by Yorkshire’s peatlands. Vast quantities of peat were cut from Thorne Moors and sent to the Western Front for use as litter for the horses which hauled the army’s weaponry and supplies across the battlefields.

“The original use wasn’t peat cutting for horticulture, the original use was for horse litter,” said Ian. “You have to get back into a society that is dependent on human power and animal power. Emerging cities like Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford and York were all powered by horses and you need horse litter, and where do you get it, Thorne Moors. It’s brought out by barges in huge amounts, and then it was going to the front.”

War’s legacy on the Yorkshire landscape is all around, and will be explored by the conference. Huge amounts of peat were stripped from Holme Moss by two ex-servicemen who used their discharge pay after World War Two to set up a business supplying it as fuel to the factories of Leeds and Sheffield.

“One of the issues at Holme Moss is that the whole side of the moss is pretty much devoid of peat,” said Ian. “These guys spent about five years stripping peat off the hillside. It’s that untold bit of history – the energy crisis, and these guys were there running a business. They had no right to be there because it’s common land and you can’t sell it.”

There are crash sites of bombers on the high moors of Kinder and Bleaklow, and at Houndkirk, west of Sheffield, traces remain of a mock village built and lit as a decoy to draw Luftwaffe air raids away from the city’s steel industry that was so vital to the war effort between 1939 and 1945. In Clumber Park, near Worksop, platforms built to store tanks hidden amongst the trees from bomber sorties are still visible.

These shadows of war are vital reminders of human stories that are in danger of being lost from living recollection, according to Ian. “It brings the whole landscape to life, how people are involved, and from a military point of view, you suddenly see the landscape in a whole different way.

“There’s an environmental aspect to this, but there is also this lost cultural memory and we’re at a point now where you have a few people who did this stuff, and a few people who have memories from other people, but it’s one of those things where people don’t realise it’s so exciting.

“Our feeling is that there are still people who have things to tell us, which they may not even have thought about.

“They may not even think that what their auntie or their gran did has any significance whatsoever, but nobody’s ever written it all down, and it’s never been captured.

“We are reaching a point where the knowledge will have gone. We feel there are probably more people out there who still have a memory, and if there are, please tell us. It would be great to find people who went out scavenging wild garlic to send to the front.”

• War and Peat takes place at Sheffield Showroom and Workstation from September 4 to 6, and is open to all. Sessions include the roles of wetlands in warfare, the battle for public access to moorlands and the impact of the Falklands War on the islands’ landscapes. Full details and booking information can be found at www.ukeconet.org.