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Saturday, November 10, 2012

In Flanders Field - Remembering 11 November 1918

Excerpt from GATHER THE BONES by Alison Stuart (Lyrical Press 2012)

Passchandaele September 17, 1917.

Paul’s first thought as he felt the rain on his face, was one of despair. The cold, unrelenting wetness meant only one thing. He wasn’t dead. He opened his eyes and looked up into the dark sky and wondered what time it was. Midnight? Past midnight? He parted his lips and let the wetness relieve his raging thirst. It tasted of blood, everything tasted or smelt of blood and worse.

He dared not move. Movement would attract the unwanted attention of the snipers in the German trenches and, he thought grimly, start his wounds bleeding again. He would die here in this shell hole, already up to his knees in the fetid water beneath him. It would take days to die, a long, slow agonizing death. God knew in the last few years he had seen such deaths often enough.

He tentatively moved his right hand, just enough to seek out his holster. Finding it empty, he closed his eyes and grimaced in impotent despair as memory flooded back. He raised his aching head to look down into the dark, evil water below him. Nothing disturbed its surface except the spattering rain drops. It was as if the earth itself had swallowed Charlie and now tried to suck him down too.

The persistent rain sent icy splinters of cold through his soaked tunic into his bones. If the wounds didn’t kill him, exposure might speed the process. He lay for a long time in the cold and the dark summoning up the courage to move.

A shell burst close by, spattering him with mud and filthy water. Paul shut his eyes, his body responding instinctively, despite his protesting injuries, by curling up protectively. When the ground stopped vibrating, he wiped the mud from his eyes with his good hand and lay quite still, gathering his strength and mentally plotting the one hundred yards that stood between him and the British lines...(end excerpt)

In 2005 my husband and I visited the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme. I have blogged in an earlier post, Tears on the Western Front,  about my search for my lost relative, Captain Richard Conway Lowe who died at Pozieres, and how moving I found the experience.

I think being a soldier, albeit a peacetime soldier, gave me an empathy with the men who endured the hell of the World War One trenches and when I came to write GATHER THE BONES, I wanted to try and impart a little of what they suffered. This is not a book about World War One itself. Paul's story is told in flashbacks (such as the one above). What I wanted to convey is the effect the war had on every individual whether they were a mother (Evelyn and Sarah), a wife (Helen), a daughter (Alice) and on the men who went to war (Paul, Charlie, Tony and Devlin).  I also wanted to compare this suffering with other conflicts (the Peninsula War) and show the experience as being universal. 

Reflecting on the Battle of Passchandaele - Tyne Cot Cemetery.Belgium
Outside Ypres is the small medical aid station where a young Canadian doctor, John McRae penned the immortal words of In Flanders Field, which in the extraordinary collection of World War One Poetry remains my personal choice. When a close friend was killed during the 2nd Battle of Ypres May 2 1915. McCrae performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance. McCrae did not live to see peace. He died of meningitis in January 1918.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Sunday 11th November 2012 marks, as it has done for nearly one hundred years, the day the guns fell silent.  

Every year since the 1920s, my own church in far off Melbourne, Australia holds a service of remembrance on the Sunday closest to 11 November, called the Lighting of the Lamp.  The flags of our local Scouts and Guides and our Naval Cadet Unit are laid up along with the flag of our Karen friends, refugees from their own war in Burma. The old liturgy of the 1660 Prayer Book is recited, the words becoming less and less familiar with the years but no less moving for the connection with those times so long past and the little light, that little beacon of hope and memory is passed from hand to hand around the darkened church before relighting the memorial lamp in the chapel for another year. 

On Sunday let us remember not only those who died in the wars of so long ago but our young men and women serving in our armed forces today. 

Grave of Captain Richard Conway Lowe, MC - age 22
We must never forget.