Harry Perry Robinson was elderly (age 54) and infirm at the outbreak of the First World War. But he was also a senior correspondent of The Times with a distinguished service record; a confidante of the proprietor, Lord Northcliffe; and a rabid patriot long convinced of the German threat to world peace. There was really no stopping him from crossing the channel and heading to the Western Front.
Robinson was, in fact, the oldest correspondent who covered the entirety of the war, writing up to two-thousand words a day for The Times, articles that were also syndicated in newspapers around the world. He was part of a coterie of correspondents at the front, including Philip Gibbs and William Beach Thomas.
As there were often long stretches between battles, correspondents searched for topics to write about to satisfy a public hungry for news. Robinson, keenly interested in the natural world, turned his reporter’s eye to the war’s impact on flora and fauna. “Strips of waste land by the roadside are ablaze with wildflowers, ragwort and milfoil and toadflax and evening primrose,” he wrote. “A single chiffchaff – plucky little thruster that he is! – was singing impatiently not far behind the battle-line.” Dispatches like these offered readers a respite from the horrors of war and hopeful signs of a postwar return to normality.
One of Robinson’s articles began, “A stuffed bird seems a queer object to have a place in the Imperial War Museum; but few things have a better right to be there than the old stork of the Hotel du Rhin at Amiens.”
During the Battle of the Somme, Amiens was the meeting place for French and British armies and the center of fraternization was the Hotel du Rhin. Behind the hotel was a walled garden with a small pond, home to a faithful stork and a gull for many years. “They were great friends,” Robinson noted. “The stork never paced across the grass without the gull pattering close in attendance.” The birds became animated by passing aircraft piloted by the “Boche,” the pejorative for the German enemy:
Aeroplanes interested them most. Before the human bystanders had heard even the throb of an engine, the stork would catch sight of the strange bird in the far-off sky and, with beak pointed heavenward, it would clatter its long mandibles – rat-tat-tat-tat – just like the rattle of a machine-gun … Officers have been known to lean out of their windows and shout to him: “Good old bird!” He undoubtedly hated the Boche.
During the German offensive in March 1918, Amiens was heavily bombed and largely destroyed, including most of the Hotel du Rhin. On 29 March, Robinson and his fellow correspondents toured the ruins and decided to rescue the birds, returning them to their billet at Château Rollencourt. “There, turned down in the park, they had a beautiful stream with wide reedy backwaters and shady tree-sheltered lawns to roam in, and they seemed to settle down in happiness,” he recalled. But their idyll was short-lived:
One day the stork fell ill, being found lying with half-closed eyes in shelter of a bush. He was taken into a warm hut and wrapped in flannel, and every effort was made to induce him to eat or even to swallow a few drops of brandy and water. Perhaps war correspondents and Press officers and the like do not know the right way to doctor storks. Perhaps it was no physical malady, but a broken heart because of the course the war was taking in that dreadful April of 1918. At all events, nothing availed; and in the morning the patriotic bird was dead. That same evening the gull vanished, gone, doubtless, to seek his comrade.
A message was dispatched to General Headquarters about the famous stork of the Hotel du Rhin. The correspondents suggested it be stuffed and preserved for the Imperial War Museum, newly established in London.
“Later in the day, a major-general, splendid in scarlet and brass, came all the way from Montreuil and, with all honours, took the stork away with him reverently in his Rolls- Royce car,” Robinson wrote. “If there had been a band it would have played a funeral march. Now the stork stands, in a glass case all by himself, with a label telling briefly his history, in the nave of the Crystal Palace. He is a noble bird, gloriously black and white in the full spring plumage of early April. When visitors look at him he peers at them out of his beady eye and is plainly saying: ‘Let me see! Did I know you in Amiens in the old days?’”
What happened to the stork? It’s not in the Imperial War Museum collection today, and curators have no idea of the bird’s fate.
Featured Image Credit: “Harry Perry Robinson (standing, center) strikes a pose with his fellow war correspondents at the Western Front in 1916”; public domain, provided by the author.