The Battle of Verdun was one of the costliest battles in human history, with over 714,000 casualties over the span of 303 days.
Many Kew Gardens staff were serving during this period and in January 1919 two oak trees were planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew from acorns picked up from the battlefields of Verdun in 1917, which grew into a ‘living memorial’ to those who lost their lives not only in the Battle of Verdun but also the Great War.
One of these ‘Verdun Oaks’ was planted in a prominent position beside the Chinese Lions and lake, near to the war memorial plaques situated in the Temple of Arethusa and Victoria Gate.
For 94 years it grew to great stature – and great girth, thanks to its sunny position in the garden, with no other trees to compete with for light – and became a magnificent oak tree. But just 6 years short of its 100th birthday, it was severely damaged by ‘St Jude’s Storm’ on 23rd October, 2013, and in 2014, one hundred years after the start of World War I, it had to be felled.
In 2014, Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum at Kew contacted Simon Burvill of Gaze Burvill. Tony had a plan to commemorate not only this magnificent tree, but to make a mark of remembrance for all the staff from Kew who lost their lives in both devastating World Wars. Tony wanted to make a special seat to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War on 11th November 2018.
Simon was honoured to be asked to come and have a look at the fallen tree to see if it was going to be possible to use it for the seat. Anything that Tony does not know about trees is probably not worth knowing, so he was aware that an oak tree that had not been nurtured in a carefully managed forest does not usually yield good wood for furniture making – or at least for good quality furniture making.
Gaze Burvill have 24 years experience in designing and making oak outdoor seating, with craftsman-made seats gracing the finest private and public gardens in the land, including, they are very proud to say, The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. Oak may be the craftsman’s favourite wood, and a good choice for an outdoor seat, being naturally impermeable and durable, but the tree, especially one damaged by a storm, must be treated with special care.
Assessing the tree and understanding the best way to cut a trunk into boards in order to get the most stable, warp-resistant, strong wood is specialised work, so in April 2015, we took the Verdun Oak to Helmdon Sawmill, placing it in the hands of Geoff Tyler of Tyler Hardwoods and sawmiller Steve and his experienced team.
Watching a tree trunk going through the sawmill is one of several knuckle-biting stages in the transformation of trunk to usable wood board. It is all the more exciting when the oak is to be quarter sawn – a highly skilled cutting technique which, as well as revealing unique and beautiful medullar rays in the wood grain, also produces the strongest and most stable cut from the oak – the fillet steak of the tree, so to speak.
Trees do hold secrets, however, and there were eight potentially lethal ones hiding in our Verdun tree trunk – eight nails, probably used decades ago to pin a poster to the trunk, and over time, enveloped into the growing tree, eventually becoming completely hidden from sight.
Secrets will out, as we all know, and this one came out with a very big bang indeed, which called a sudden halt to the sawing process, in the very last cutting section.
18 strong, clean boards were successfully produced from the trunk, but were left with a broken sawblade and the last ‘V’ shaped portion in a state too dangerous to saw into.
This orphan piece, a sculptural ‘V’ shape, possibly for ‘Verdun’, had its own beauty about it – with dark streaking marks from the iron nails reacting with the oak clearly visible, like a dark wound, and rather haunting.
It felt right to celebrate the ‘injured’ board just as much as those who survived their sawmill ordeal intact – returning heroes all. And so, the Verdun Bench was born – a raw, evocative seat, which shows its scars proudly.