History and Stories
An informally planted flowerbed including wildflowers and two white wooden crosses.

Battlefields to butterflies: A gardener at war

The First World War devastated England. Men from all walks of life left their homes, loved ones and jobs to fight, many never to return.

Staff at some of the properties now cared for by English Heritage were no exception.

A rusted, derelict tank in a field of high grass and some wildflowers.
A British tank abandoned on the Pozières battlefield, 1917. Onlookers were startled at how quickly nature reclaimed these fields

‘White daisies, red poppies…’

The devastation of the First World War changed not only the lives of those caught up in the war but also the landscape where the battles were fought. The countryside was churned up by tanks, trenches and bombs. Woods, meadows and farmland were changed beyond recognition. 

Those who saw the battlefields after the fighting had ended marvelled at their speed of regeneration. Soon after the fighting stopped, natural growth started to reclaim these battlefields.

The war artist William Orpen and poet John Masefield were both overcome by the floral spectacle that arose shortly after fighting ceased. Orpen commented ‘White daisies, red poppies, and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles’. Masefield mentioned ‘one summer with its flowers will cover most of the ruin that man can make’. 

Rows of white headstones stand beneath a monument in green grass and with the countryside beyond.
Flesquières Hill British cemetery. Ernest died nearby, at the Battle of Cambrai, and is buried here

Ernest Owen Johnson, 1875-1917

Employed as a garden labourer at Osborne at the outbreak of the First World War, Ernest Johnson was drafted into the Royal Naval Division (Royal Naval reservists who could not be found a ship to serve on) on 17 August 1916.

After an illness which took Ernest away from his battalion, he returned to the front on 10th November 1917 at the end of the Second Battle of Passchendaele. The Battle of Cambrai started on 20 November 1917 and at 6.30am on 30 December Ernest’s division was heavily bombed for 15 minutes.

Ernest died that day, less than a year and half after he was drafted. His remains are buried at Flesquières Hill British Cemetery, Cambrai, France, in grave V.C.13.

A bed of wildflowers in afternoon sunshine with three white wooden crosses planted behind.
The planted ‘Battlefields to Butterflies’ flower bed within the walled garden at Osborne. Plants of the kind likely to have appeared on the battlefields were chosen

English Heritage remembers

In 2018, to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, English Heritage gardeners, volunteers and local schoolchildren worked together to remember those lost.

At Osborne, a flower bed was created for the summer. It was sown with plants that were recorded growing in the Somme area of northern France during 191617, and illustrated how nature reclaims the sites of warfare.

The flower bed bloomed with wildflowers to waist height. Poppies and cornflowers blossomed among barbed wire, and small white crosses were visible through the plants. The bed was dedicated to the garden staff of the Royal Parks (Osborne was a Royal Park at the time of the war) who lost their lives at war.

A row of jars with black lids and white handwritten labels including Vimy Ridge and Beauvais
These jars once belonged to a surgeon at Osborne House, when it was being used as the King Edward VII Convalescent Home for Officers. It seems he collected soil samples from wartime sites he visited – and one includes soil from the grave of a private who was born on the Isle of Wight. Perhaps he was returning an old friend to his home?
© Zoe Barker/REX Shutterstock

A place of recovery

Osborne has further good reasons to mark the First World War. The house itself was a convalescent home for casualties for many years after 1904. In the First World War officers were not allowed home to convalesce as it delayed their return to the Front; many were sent to Osborne.

Those recovering there included AA Milne, of Winnie the Pooh fame, and novelist Robert Graves. They would have walked in the walled garden to aid their recovery.

Very few families on the Isle would not have been impacted by the war. The Isle of Wight County Press estimated at least 1,650 islanders died, based on casualty reports in The Times. It is this number whose names appear on the County War memorial at nearby Carisbrooke Castle.

More First World War history at our sites