Snowdrops will soon be announcing the arrival of spring but the story of their origin bears witness to a not too distant tragic past, says PETER FROST
In October of 1854, in the rolling meadows of Crimea, 600 brave British soldiers were ordered to their death by ignorant and arrogant aristocratic officers. Those officers, just like Cameron and his mostly Eton-educated Cabinet believed they were born to rule.
Tennyson summed up the destiny of the common man in his famous poem: “Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die:/Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred.”
This was the notorious Charge of the Light Brigade. The following Christmas and New Year were miserable times in the British army camps of the Crimea.
Memories of the horrendous defeat and the harsh winter weather of snow and gales contrived to make this a sad posting for British soldiers missing their loved ones at home.
Then at the end of January, in a curious parallel of the flush of blood red poppies that painted the fields of Flanders in another foreign war the hills of Crimea bought forth a huge beautiful display of tiny snow white flowers.
They covered the countryside so thickly that they could have easily been confused as a fall of fresh snow. British soldiers were amazed to see the battlefields covered in little, frail snowdrops.
The flowers were, in fact the Crimean snowdrop (Galanthus plicatus).
Many of the British soldiers took the tiny bulbs home with them, some even slipped the bulbs — little bigger than a grain of wheat — into letters to their wives and sweethearts at home.
Today snowdrops, both the Crimean species and our own native and slightly larger Common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) are a familiar and very welcome part of our mid-winter countryside.
For me the delicate nodding white flowers — brave little things — piercing the frozen earth are early heralds of the arrival of spring and the end of winter.
Did you know that there are over 2,000 different types of snowdrop, or galanthus, growing wild in our countryside and in our gardens?
There are even snowdrop clubs and snowdrop societies and the rarest and exotic varieties change hands for hundreds of pounds for a single bulb.
The heritage of those Crimean snowdrops lives on today. You find them planted on the graves of soldiers of the Crimean war.
Huge naturalised swathes of the tiny flowers are found in areas with rich military history and traditions.
So if you can, try to get out to see the snowdrops. There are locations all over Britain which offer spectacular displays of the flower and there is sure to be one within easy reach of where you live.
As you marvel at these living snowdrifts pause to remember another group of British working men sent to die in a pointless foreign war in the hills above the famous valley of death.
The British Establishment has never had much respect for its old soldiers. It doesn’t today.
Forty years after Tennyson’s famous poem, Rudyard Kipling wrote The Last of the Light Brigade.
It commemorated the last 20 survivors of the charge of the Light Brigade who visited an 80-year-old Tennyson to lobby him for not writing a sequel about the way in which England was treating its old soldiers.
Kipling felt strongly on the subject and returned to it again in his poem to draw attention to the poverty in which the real survivors were living, in the same way that he evoked The Absent Minded Beggar.
“When you’ve shouted ‘Rule Britannia,’ when you’ve sung ‘God save the Queen,’/When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth,/Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine/For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?”
Recently I walked through one of London’s royal parks to see the snowdrops. By the gate I came across a homeless ex-soldier. He was begging. And you thought we were supposed to learn from history.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 14 February 2015