Epitaph of a WW1 soldier leads to new support for ITF
Looking at this photograph, most of us will instantly realise that it shows a group of soldiers from the First World War. For many of us, it will evoke an immediate sense of sadness as we remember the unprecedented loss of life in the war that failed to end all wars. Some of us may wonder which of the men preserved here in sepia actually survived. And a few of us may speculate about their subsequent lives.
Writer and artist, Andrew Tatham, decided to do more than just speculate. Instead, he has spent the last 21 years researching what really did happen to all 46 men from the 8th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment. His findings, (now presented in a book, A Group Photograph, as well as in a major Art and History exhibition at In Flanders’ Fields Museum in Ypres last year), led him not just to the family trees of the men in the photograph, but also to the Men of Trees and, thus, to ITF.
Before we trace that connection, it’s interesting to note that Tatham’s own work contains a strong tree motif. Seeing the group photograph as a ‘time capsule into other places and other times and other lives,’ his project extends both forward and back from the time the picture was taken, and includes an animated film of the soldiers’ individual family trees growing, as well as tree drawings in which,
…each root and branch is a thinking, breathing, feeling life.
The roots and branches of the Group Photograph project connected with ITF’s trees through the person of Donald Fenwick Stileman, pictured in the photograph 7th from the left in the second to back row.
In his book, Tatham tells us,
Stileman was wounded in his first action at Loos, but back with the Battalion in January 1916 only to take a bullet in his right arm on the Somme…that left him with what he termed a “dud hand.”
Of all the stories he traced, it was Stileman’s that Tatham found most inspiring. After the war, the veteran switched from studying history to forestry, and subsequently dedicated his life to trees, working for the Indian Forestry Service and then the Forestry Commission in the UK. The longest living of all the men, a photograph in the book shows Stileman at the ripe old age of 90, still pruning trees whilst balancing 10 feet up a ladder despite having the use of only one hand.
When he died aged 94 in 1989, Stileman’s epitaph read,
Greatly Loved – Man of the Trees
It was, of course, this inscription that led Tatham to Richard St. Barbe Baker. Tatham was struck by the similarities between Stileman and our founder, who also fought and was wounded in the First World War before establishing Men of the Trees. Tracing our organisation’s own genealogy, Tatham recently sent ITF a generous donation and has pledged 10% of the money from his book sales in further support.
He explains his motivation to help us in his blog:
I’ve recently been feeling rather bogged down in the re-telling of the First World War. It feels good to have a purpose other than reminding people of the awfulness.
It’s a sentiment that we feel sure that St. Barbe Baker, Donald Stileman, and the other men in the photograph would share.
You can learn more about the men of the 8th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment and Andrew Tatham’s work from his website which is also the place to buy his book:
by Rachel Whittaker