The Magpie’s Nest

The magpie was real.  I’d come across references to ‘the magpie’s nest’ in connection with the 9th Devons on the Somme but assumed it was simply one of those nicknames soliders used in the trenches.  Perhaps someone was being ironic; it never occurred to me that the bird would be real, in the middle of a battlefield.  But there it was, described by Ernest Crosse, the Devons’ chaplain: a living magpie, nesting on the Somme battlefield in the spring of 1916 oblivious to the human drama being played out all round. Even the bombardments which broke and tore the trees on either side seemed not to disturb the bird: through April into May and June she carried on as normal, brooding her eggs, rearing her young…

Returning often to that sector of the front line through that spring and early summer Noel Hodgson and the others were able to watch the bird’s progress. The magpie’s nest in Mansel Copse became a familiar landmark. For Ernest Crosse, the bird represented the stolid endurance expected of the men who watched her as she carried on with her job, despite the danger. He probably used the magpie in sermons; he certainly used her in a much sadder context, describing the aftermath of the first day’s fighting to one of his fellow birdwatchers.

My dear Babe,’ he wrote. (‘Babe’ Freeland was the younger brother of one of the battlion’s original officers, hence the nickname. He was injured in the battle on 1 July.) ‘So our game of tennis will have to wait for a bit – never mind, the result was worth the delay. Do tell me just how bad you are. . . from all the information I can get I hear you fought like a lion as I knew you would. The total loss is heavy.  Martin, Hodgson, Holcroft, Rayner, Riddell, Adamson, Hurst, Shephard have all gone to their long home, Pridham, Butland, Dines & others are wounded. Nearly all the casualties were just by the magpies nest. I buried all I could collect in our front line there the following day.’

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