In memory of that ‘ghastly war’

2009-11-12 00:00

“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row …”

IWAS sitting quietly in my daughter’s car at the Quarry the other day while she did her shopping. On her return, she handed me two scarlet poppies before we drove off. Not real poppies, of course, but made from red crepe paper and thin green wire. They are supposed to be worn on November 11 to remind us of the countless dead of the ghastly World War 1. And in the hopes that the “war to end all wars” would indeed be the last.

For years at this time, I have put a rand or two into the collection box and taken the poppy. This year she did it, one for me and one for her to put with her little group of memorabilia she keeps stuck on our big lounge mirror. I have kept these poignant little reminders of that mindless slaughter and do it with perhaps more reason than most others. I do it in remembrance of my mother’s fiancé who was killed in Flanders in 1916.

She never spoke of him to us. But her brother, Hugh, told us when we were old enough to understand. He said that she grieved so deeply for years that when her widowed Uncle Thomas was assigned to the position of Commissioner for Sind State in India, she was sent with him to act as his hostess at official functions. After some months, she met Dad and things became brighter for her.

There is also another thing that makes me deeply sensitive about this event. Ever since I was able to remember my thoughts, I have had a really dark, gothic awareness of the trenches of that war. So real that I could smell the drenched soil, the urine of fear and the putrification of the dead. Not only that, but I would be overcome by the sensation of being calf-deep in the swirling mud of the trench floors, hearing the asthmatic and laboured breathing of many chlorine gas- damaged lungs. And the all-pervading icy fear of death. I would hear the cockney voices of the soaked soldiers trying to cheer themselves in these bitter surroundings of hell.

It was suggested that perhaps these thoughts were absorbed from uncles discussing their own experiences of the trenches. Perhaps tribal memory, friends suggested. Neither is right. The memories were there before I could even talk and, in those days, uncles did not spend time with babies. We were more or less permanent occupants of the nursery under the care of a strict nanny.

I have thought that these vivid experiences were transmitted in some way from Mother’s dead fiancé when he was at the point of death, and absorbed by my tiny, uncluttered brain at birth or very soon afterwards. They are too real and too specific to be random.

So, when I hold these sad little flowers of remembrance, part of me seems to go back over 90 years when the flower of youth paid the appalling price of the utter foolishness of humankind. Wars did not end, savage wars continued but our innocence was lost in the cold, blood-soaked mud of Flanders and a host of other dreadful fields of death.

Perhaps we mourn for that innocence more than the actual deaths that caused it to be lost.

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