Flowers of the Forest.

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Nearly one hundred years after the end of World War I, a young man journeys to Flanders to visit the graveside of his great grandfather, a soldier who died on the salient. I do not own the lyrics of the song "The Green fields of France." Check out the version sung by the Corries if you are interested, it is such a beautiful song.

Submitted: July 17, 2017

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Submitted: July 17, 2017

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Flowers of the Forest.

 

Sam wandered alone up the slight hill, the warmth of the sun burning the back of his neck as he finally reached the top. His legs were aching and so was his head. He had been walking all day to reach this place, and he was almost ready to collapse. His head ached savagely, assaulted by the heat of the afternoon. His skin had been burned a deep brown and his blue eyes stood out in stark relief from his sun tanned face. He lifted a hand, wiping a strand of black hair away from his forehead anf  frowned.

 After taking  a short pause to gather both his breath and his thoughts, Sam walked on.  The sky above him was the deep blue of sapphires and the green grass beneath his feet glittered like a field of emeralds in the summer sun. In the distance, fields of red poppies tossed their heads in the light breeze, somehow looking more like droplets of blood upon the green grass than wild  flowers.  Around him, the birds added their melodies to the ambience of the day as Sam strolled on. The peace and tranquillity was somewhat ironic, considering where he was at this moment.

All around him were fields full of shell holes and grave stones that poked up through the ground like teeth in an open mouth.  These grim looking grey stones were complete with row upon row  of  faded letters that,  if one cared to get closer, would reveal over a thousand names, all of them the names of people who had  been lost in the red sea of  war. There were names beyond counting. As Sam turned right, he allowed his tired and aching eyes to scan the row upon row of graves, searching for the one name that meant something to him – the one name that  he had travelled across France to see.

A light breeze blew up from the west and caused the trees to whisper around Sam, standing in the middle of the make shift graveyard.  He felt intimidated and unbelievably small surrounded by the rows of gravestones that marked the resting places of the fallen soldiers. An eerie feeling stole over him as he moved further into the graveyard. Certain names, with the ancient writing etched into the stone, seemed to leap out at Sam, each one appearing more clearly in his mind.

At long last, Sam found the name he was looking for, buried deep amidst a complex web of names.

The single gravestone in question bore four names, each one faded almost into invisibility upon the warn grey stone. In a dazed reverie, Sam stood before it, eyes focused exclusively upon the faded lettering as he committed it to the kind of memory that no photo album could ever capture.

Each name rang a curious and age old bell in the depths of the young man’s soul,  as if he was being reunited with friends long forgotten. Kevin Jamesson. 1889. George Mcfurson.  1896. Arthur Rankin.. 1895. And at the bottom, his great grandfather, Edmund Mclean, born 1870.  Every name upon this single gravestone had the same date of death, 1917, one year before the end of the war that these four men had lain down their lives to fight. They had all died on the same day, had maybe even  lived in the same dugout, each one suffering his fellows’ hardships, each one struggling on in total futility as the generals at the top made all the decisions.

Sam Mclean scrutinised the  grave stone carefully and noticed that at the end of each name was  inscribed the name of the  soldier’s regiment. The  Gordon Highlanders. Like him, his grand father and his fellow men had come from Scotland.

Sam stared at the name at the bottom, Edmund Mclean. He had heard many a story about his great grandfather, about how he had been one of those men who could talk their way out of a room with no doors. About how he was one of those people who was entirely committed to serving his king and country until the very end and how the man had, through his courageous leadership, gathered a dedicated group of friends and followers while doing so. These stories as told by the surviving members of his great grand father’s battalion had spun tales of bravery against all odds and the courage of one man, defending his trench and his friends from the enemy.

 Sam knew not whether these rumours were true, but didn’t think they mattered. Nobody alive would ever be able to ask him.

Sam briefly wondered who his great grandfather’s fellows had been. They were just names to him yet he knew that the men who lay beneath the dry soil had had lives and cares of their own. Who had Kevin Jamesson been? Why had George signed up to fight for his King and country? Had he been  swept up in the glory as millions of other young men had been back in August of 1914? Had Mr Rankin left a devoted family back home? As he had been carried away from his hometown  by the train, had  Arthur Rankin waved goodbye to some girl friend or sweetheart who would sit by the fire and wait for him to come home?

He could of course answer none of these questions. Yet he couldn’t help but think of them as he delved into his ruck sack for his phone. He stood and took a photo of the old gravestone, making sure that he could clearly see all four names written upon it.

Sam stood, phone in hand, surprised that these four men had actually been named, that these four men had had bodies to bury at the end of the war that had killed ten percent of the world’s population. Many hadn’t.  All around him, stood gravestones that sheltered and protected the bodies of unknown soldiers. Upon these gravestones were the words, “a soldier of the Great War, known unto God.” Tears welled up in Sam’s eyes as he thought of those unknown soldiers. He at least, had a known family member to return to. He at least knew who his great grandfather had been. None of these unknown soldiers had families, for nobody knew who they were. The sadness in his soul upon that realisation was profound and somehow too difficult to put into words.  

He turned to go, casting his eye for the final time over the faded letters of Edmund Mclean’s name. He cared not for the rumours that had attached themselves to his great grandfather’s memory. He preferred to imagine how the man may have been before he died almost one hundred years ago. Had he been a captain? Had he been in command of his dugout, giving out the orders and ensuring that his fellow soldiers obeyed them? Had he laughed and sang with the rest of the men, joining in with their dreams and spoken musings of home? Sam supposed that he may have done. He must have had someone that he had cared about. A wife, or a girl friend maybe, or even a close friend.  Sam could imagine him standing there, resplendent in his soldiers’ uniform and probably hating every minute of it, sitting and eating fake food with the rest of his companions and trying to look upon the bright side of what had become his life. Sam could imagine his great grandfather living out each and every day in the trenches that had been scattered under the plow many years back, ending every one of those days with a prayer to the heavens, grateful that he had survived another day of brutal warfare.

Then Sam Mclean’s mind wandered to the darkest of these thoughts. How had his great grandfather felt on the day of the big push? How had he felt as he had stood with his men, preparing to advance and rise out of the trenches to throw all that he could at the enemy? Had he been scared? Sam knew that he hadn’t survived. This gravestone proved that, but had Edmund Mclean been hoping to? Had he hoped to be the one man saved from the hail of bullets that had rained down upon them, or would he have been glad to have escaped from the rest of World War 1? Or would he have been resigned to the inevitable truth, that being his almost certain death?  Sam tried to see through his grandfather’s eyes, picturing the scene of barbed wire, pot holes and shells scattered everywhere, a constant reminder of death that had been an ever present shadow, lurking beyond the walls of every dugout. His great grandfather had climbed out of those dugouts, his bayonet in hand, hoping to God that he would survive but knowing in some deep corner of his mind that he probably would not. The grim certainty would have been bad enough, knowing that you were about to die with no understanding of who or what you were fighting for, but putting your trust and faith in the generals that they at least should know what they were doing, and what they were putting their soldiers through. What had it been like, to know that in a moment, your life would be snatched away from you and that you would be replaced by others who had signed up in the belief that war was somehow a noble and glamourous thing, a notion that had been drilled into their heads from the outset back in 1914.

And at his funeral, had the pipe band played the Scottish lament as his body had been put to rest? Had the mournful melody that had come to be known as “The Flowers of the Forest” echoed over the salient as his fellows had said their goodbyes?  

Did his great grandfather know that his great grandson, Sam Mclean, a young man from a tiny village in Northern Scotland had journeyed across the sea to France to visit his grave side?  Did he know that over a century later, people were still coming to the fields of Belgium and France to pay their respects to those who had fallen?  Would Edmund  Mclean be grateful at the recognission, glad that he had not been forgotten? Or would he be looking down upon the current generations of the world,  disgusted by the fact that a century had passed and peoplestill hadn’t learned the lessons of the past? If he had been in a position to judge, Sam would have. People never learned, even when the evidence stared them right in the face.

Sam walked away across the parched fields, back to where he had come from, certain thatthough Edmund  Mclean’s body lay in no man’s land, his memory would be carried around by his great grandson for the rest of his life.  Sam would return some day, to the same spot, maybe even with a  child of his own. He would stand by that same gravestone, telling his son or daughter about the trials and suffering caused by the Great War. He would tell his child of his great grandfather in the vein hope that their memory would be kept alive.  For if the memories of the soldiers endured, maybe humanity would endure also. Sam knew that war would never become a thing of the past. War would always exist somewhere, but if people remembered what wars were fought for and the great debt that was owed to those who fought for the rights of humanity,  maybe they would be able to keep humanity alive.

Sam doubted it though. He doubted that humanity would ever learn after centuries of stupidity. But he could hope, could he not?

 

“The sun shines bright on the green fields of France,

The warm summer breeze makes the red poppies dance,

the trenches are scattered long under the plow,

No gas, no barbed wire, there’s no gun firing now.

But here in this graveyard, it is still no man’s land,

The countless white crosses are mute where they stand,

To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,

Of a whole generation that were butchered and damned.

Did  they beat the drums slowly, did they play the Fife  lowly,

Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?

Did the  band play the last post and chorus,

Did the pipes play The Flowers  of the Forest.”


© Copyright 2017 Murron Cain. All rights reserved.

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