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Heavily carved into a holly tree in the U.K. is a Second World War story waiting to be told from Alton, N.S.
The odd discovery was made by several Britons seeking a fresh-air outing during COVID restrictions.
Emma Inskip, her children Isobelle Kelly and Giorgia Armitage and friend Daniel Gregory were exploring a section of New Forest National Park they had not visited before. While picnicking on a log, the group suddenly realized they were surrounded by trees graffitied with carvings from throughout time.
One particularly detailed etching on a holly tree read: “Alton, N.S. Canada, 1943” with the initials “HL” and “CM”.
“It's fascinating to see because it's that little piece of history and that little something that has been left behind, just carved into a tree with a bayonet or whatever was to hand," said Gregory. “The person is going to that much detail, not just to put initials or just a date, but to put in the exact area they came from. It’s quite unique.”
They shared the discovery with a friend and local historian, Richard Reeves. According to his research, from September 1943 to April 1944, the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division was stationed in New Forest, before moving to the east side of Southampton Water to prepare for the D-Day assault (June 6, 1944) at Juno Beach. The division commanded units from western Canada and the nearby Canadian War Memorial displays the large presence Canadians had in the area.
In New Forest, the soldiers would exercise and conduct live-fire exercises among the oak and beech trees. Cattle, ponies and wild deer are occasionally spotted throughout the pasture woodland.
Some parts are thick with prickly holly, but New Forest is a great area to walk, said Reeve. Etchings can be found on many of the trees and in an older section that had not been cleared he found one dating to 1634.
In 1941, an amusing cautionary tale, which described the British people as “tree worshipers", was invented to keep the trees and animals safe. It is suspected to have been written by then Brigadier Frederick Dobson Middleton of the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade, who later became a senior Canadian Army officer in the Second World War.
“They consider trees of all kinds as a Perth personification of their God, and they have been known to take a poor view of those who ruthlessly destroyed them,” read the Hampshire Division War Diary, currently held by The National Archives. “Therefore, every effort must be made not to crush down or destroy any trees in harbour areas."
Animals were described as providing eyes for their blind God to see the world.
“The wanton killing for food or otherwise of any of the creatures mentioned, is regarded as a sacrilege, and it is very difficult to control the people if they learn of this, and they surely will, if many acts of killing take place.”
In reality, the farmers would be compensated if their animals were accidentally shot. It is uncertain if the amusing message got to troops two years later when the carving was made.
“I think basically, they made up an entertaining story," said Reeve. “Rather than: ‘Do not break the trees, approach the animals, they made a funny story about it. And so, it would stick in their minds a bit.”
The U.K.’s COVID restrictions prevent people from travelling very far. New Forest is a short walk and it has been a great place to explore, said Inskip. With her children they have been measuring trees, some over 200 years old, to learn their age. Inskip said her son is “obsessed with history” and is like a “trainee Richard.”
Inskip, who has background in neuroscience and psychology, hopes to open a mental health centre with the “idea that nature provides us access to our inbuilt resilience and our own resources.” She believes getting outside and exploring has been an immense boost for people during COVID.
Whoever HL and CM are, the group hopes family members, friends, or the people themselves might recognize the name. If they were a part of the division, it does not appear there were any fatalities from Alton, N.S.
“I would just really love to know the story of who did that and what happened to them,” said Inskip. “Did they ever get home again?”