One man on the Moss before the War

Flanders Moss NNR

With Armistice Day yesterday it seems a good time to share an article that was recently brought to my attention about the lives of 2 brothers, James and Robert Adam, who worked for the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). Both brothers was born in the 1880s and lived in Edinburgh where their love of the outdoors and nature lead them to work at the RBGE in the early 1900s. The younger brother, Robert worked as a photographer and James worked as a helper (an assistant) who was responsible for writing papers on birds and mosses. Both brothers clearly had bright futures ahead of them in the natural history world but the First World War intervened.

It appears that the brothers enlistment to the army was delayed, possibly because they had an exemption due to their work at the RBGE which may have been considered important. One of the research projects that the Botanical Gardens were working on at the time was looking at the properties of sphagnum moss as a hospital dressings, and we know that sphagnum was harvested from Flanders Moss during the war for exactly this purpose. Sphagnum grows in relatively clean conditions, is slightly antiseptic due to its acidic properties and when dried can be incredibly absorbent and so these properties made it an excellent field dressing.

Both brothers enlisted with the army by January 1917, Robert to the Royal Garrison Artillery and then transferred to the Royal Flying Corp where he used his photography skills. He survived the war and went back to work at the RBGE after demobilization.

James went into the Royal Scots and then transferred to the 59th Machine Gun Corps. He found himself on the frontline on 21st March 1918 when the German spring offensive started. In the first 5 hours of the attack 1 million shells rained down on the British trenches with machine gun posts being particularly targeted.  James died that morning along with hundreds of others and his body was never found.

James’ story is important as a reminder, not just of the horrific numbers of people that died in the 1st World War, but that each one of those that died was an individual with skills, passions and potential. In his obituary his close friend S.E. Brock noted ” A few years before the war he received an appointment at the Royal Botanic Garden [12th April 1912], and although going there almost entirely ignorant of botany, he took it up with his usual whole-hearted enthusiasm, and in a wonderfully short period became an excellent field botanist. Latterly he took up mosses, and his rapid progress in that difficult group promised that he would soon have achieved a high position amongst Scottish Bryologists.”

Here below is James photographed by his brother while carrying Robert’s photography equipment out in the middle of Flanders Moss in 1909. He is standing in what was the largest gull colony in Scotland at the time, Black-headed gulls, and shows the moss in a state that we would struggle to recognize today with no trees in sight. It is possible that this visit to Flanders was a contributing factor to his passion for mosses and I can imagine him reveling in the huge expanse of the Moss.

For the complete article here.

JCAdamStAndrewsRMA-S-717-Xcrop gull Flanders

R.M. Adam’s photo of his brother J.C. Adam holding camera equipment and being attacked by a black headed gull on what is now known as the Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve in Stirlingshire, 1909. Ref RMA-S-717 -X, courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library who hold a large collection of R.M. Adam’s photographs in their Special Collections.

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