In October, our new and exciting temporary exhibition “Trench Gardens” was opened. This exhibition is a joint project between The Argyll and Sutherland Museum and the Queen Victoria School (QVS), a local school for students with parents serving in the Armed Forces. This project encourages school students to learn and reflect on the daily lives of soldiers during World War One whilst being actively engaged in gardening.
At the outbreak of the First World War many men, including some QVS students, volunteered to join The Argylls since the Regiment was connected to their local areas and had a strong reputation. During the First World War, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders grew from two battalions to a total of twenty-seven and fought against the German army in Belgium, France and further afield. Alexander Douglas Gillespie volunteered for the army and obtained commission in the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Gillespie went to the front in February 1915 and wrote letters to friends that vividly described how life in the trenches was enhanced by planting ‘trench gardens’.
Trench gardens were created by soldiers fighting from trenches, to grow food, and provide distraction during periods of prolonged inactivity and high stress. These gardens were planted to the front, the rear and within the trenches. Agricultural production dropped significantly during the war, and it was hard to distribute fresh food to soldiers in conflict zones and so there was a lot of encouragement for produce growth near the battle lines. Many of the Argyll soldiers serving in WW1 came from rural communities so had experience in growing plants and vegetables, skills they could pass on to their fellow soldiers. By growing produce the soldiers were fighting back against starvation and distracting themselves from their daily trails.
Gillespie writes of growing gooseberries and artichokes, whilst other soldiers grew celery in the trenches because it thrived in the dank, wet conditions. Different plants were also grown, such as violets, pansies, white lilies, and paeonies, which brought respite and calm to the difficulties the soldiers experienced in the trenches.
QVS began their trench garden in Summer 2023 by clearing the ground and planting potatoes, carrots, and onions. The time in the garden was used to discuss the daily lives of soldiers but also what gardening meant to the students. This encourages pupils to relate classroom knowledge to the physical activity of gardening. This cross-curricular project was inspired by Gillespie’s writing and the students were actively involved in discussions and decisions held throughout the project, covering topics such as mental health and plants as symbols of war. The QVS trench garden yielded success as the Autumn term began, and staff are currently enjoying lots of soup for lunch!
When asked about their experience, one pupil from QVS said, “I enjoyed doing the trench garden because it made me feel like I was at home because I like to garden and I find it a fun way to keep busy. It was fun to do with friends.”
As part of the QVS ‘Be a Hobby’ Programme, some of the pupils began growing their own vegetables in raised beds on the school grounds. They have donated their produce to Start-Up Stirling, a local charity which provides food to families across the Forth Valley area.
Gillespie’s reflections on war ravaged fields and plants brought about a new form of remembrance and his vision reminds us of both the fragility and resilience of man and our environment. During the war, gardening was an activity with multiple benefits, providing soldiers with a healthy diet while distracting them from the horrors they experienced and aiding their mental wellbeing. Attitudes towards discussing mental health have changed, although we still have a long way to go, the benefits that the act of gardening have remain relevant to this day. The Trench Garden project is still in its early stages, with plans to continue with QVS students in the growing of more vegetables and the encouraging of more cross-curricular activities.
The Argylls Museum would like to take this time to thank and acknowledge Queen Victoria School, Winchester College, Lucy and Nigel Sailsbury, and Adam Rattray, for their hard work and participation in this project. The “Trench Gardens” exhibit is open until December in the museum, and the team welcome everyone to come and visit this fascinating project.
Written by Caitlin Stewart, Digital Content Volunteer