Verdun Oaks: From the smallest of gestures
One hundred years ago the terrible events of the Battle of Verdun touched the hearts of the British public.
More than 400,000 French and German lives were lost in the longest running battle of the First World War. Verdun’s oak and chestnut forests were devastated, and still today bear the scars of the conflict. 185,000 hectares of forest were destroyed - an area of land bigger than Surrey, where England’s Centenary Wood will stand.
How did the acorns get here?
After the fighting ended, acorns were collected from the battlefields and planted in our towns as a tribute to the fallen. Why and how the acorns came to the UK is an unfolding story and one we would love to complete.
Extracts from newspapers and magazines written at the time provide possible clues.
One story suggests that Lord John French, who led the British into Northern Europe in 1915, took a handful of acorns to commemorate the stand the French had made at the Battle of Verdun.
There are also reports that the Mayor of Verdun sent a box of acorns to the London and North West Railway Company (LNWR) in early 1917 to be sold for the benefit of the War Seal Foundation, a charity which supported ex-servicemen and their families. Sample boxes were sent to mayors in towns and cities along the route of the railway.
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Spencer Park, Coventry, West Midlands
Coventry received a sample box of Verdun acorns because of its location on the LNWR company line. These acorns were handed to the Superintendent of Recreation Grounds "to be planted as a perpetual souvenir of the Historic City of Verdun".
In 1919, a temporary cenotaph was erected in Spencer Park to remember the city’s First World War fallen, whilst the city’s Memorial Park was under construction. At the same time a Verdun Oak was planted that had been grown from an acorn from one of the four sample boxes. A commemorative plaque now marks this tree.
Sandringham Estate, Norfolk
The Sandringham Estate confirmed Her Majesty Queen Mary planted a Verdun oak in the grounds on 28 January 1920. According to Estate records it was grown along with several others, from acorns collected from Verdun in 1917. It is possible that these trees had particular significance to the Royal Family as the Lost Battalion in Gallipoli included a company of soldiers formed of enlisted staff from the Sandringham Estate who vanished in the middle of their very first battle in August 1915.
East Street, Pembridge, Herefordshire
The Pembridge Oak stands tall near to 17th Century Alms houses. The oak is thought to have grown from an acorn bought at a fete in nearby Lyonshall by Colonel Benn who is believed to have planted more on his estate at Moorcourt. The story of the Pembridge oak tells us that Kew Gardens provided instructions on how to germinate the acorns and grow and care for the saplings.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Greater London
Two Verdun oaks were planted on Peace Day, 19 July 1919. In 2013 one was badly damaged by a storm and for safety reasons was reduced to a trunk before being removed in 2014. The other survives on the Cumberland Mound.
Garden of Remembrance, Lichfield, Staffordshire
In Lichfield’s Garden of Remembrance a plaque marks a lone oak which is identified as originating from Verdun. The plaque states "this oak tree was donated by Mr M Knights. It was grown from the original tree which stood on this site and which was grown from an acorn brought from Verdun in the Great World War 1914-1918".
The Lichfield Mercury reports in 1917 that the mayor of Lichfield received two acorns and a chestnut from the LNWR which he had hoped to plant in the museum grounds.
Halesworth Road, Southwold, Suffolk
The Verdun Oak found in Southwold stands on a small green near the Adnams Brewery. Little is known about it, but a plaque reveals that "this oak tree was grown from an acorn by the Hon Miss Eden from the Battlefield of Verdun and presented to the town in 1921".
We have been unable to find out more about Miss Eden but perhaps the acorn was bought at a fundraising event in London. Acorns were sold to raise funds for war hospices.
Near to Leominster Priory in Grange Park, an oak stands with a metal dedicatory plaque pinned to a wooden frame and attached to the tree. It reads "This tree, raised from an acorn brought from Verdun, France, during World War 1, was planted by Alderman Henry Gosling, MA, 1921". Another great example of the planting of acorns from Verdun.
War Memorial Park, Coventry, West Midlands
Coventry’s War Memorial Park opened in 1921 but was not officially opened until 1927 by Earl Haig. It is thought a tree dedicated to Earl Haig and planted by the Coventry branch of the Royal British Legion was a Verdun Oak. The Coventry Corporation’s nurseries are known to have grown on Verdun Oaks with the intention of planting these in the Memorial Park and it was here that the Spencer Park oak was first sited before its transfer during the development of War Memorial Park.
Corby Castle, Carlisle, Cumbria
The ancestral home of the Howard Family is now owned by the Ballyedmond family. A former member of staff of the late Lord Ballyedmond, on hearing of the Trust’s search on local news, remembered the Corby Castle tree and put the Trust in touch with the deputy head gardener on the estate who sent photographs of the oak and accompanying plaque, which reads: “This oak was brought from the battlefield of Verdun and planted by Philip J C Howard of Corby May 1919 to commemorate the signing of peace.”
Beaumont Park, Huddersfield, Yorkshire
The Woodland Trust already knew of horse chestnuts grown from Verdun seeds in the park, but learnt from a number of contacts that there were also Verdun oaks with plaques.
Forbury Gardens, Reading, Berkshire
The Trust knew from local history archives that a Verdun Oak had been planted in the gardens but had been unable to confirm if it had survived as the plaque had been moved to a local museum during re-landscaping of the gardens. The location of the Verdun Oak was confirmed by Dave Kenny, Lead Volunteer Verifier with the Woodland Trust Ancient Tree Inventory.
Hale War Memorial, Farnham, Surrey
Our researchers came across Farnham Town Council's 2014/15 Annual Report to Electors, which mentioned the restoration of the Hale War Memorial and stated that: "The Hale War Memorial is set on a small green enclosed by trees which were planted from seeds from the battlefield of Verdun.”. Our lead researcher visited the site and confirmed their location.