War never used to mean anything to me. It was something that happened a long
time ago, in a land so far away that it never touched me. I never knew anyone,
besides my father, who had fought in a war. I’d listened to his war stories,
but they were just that, stories. I’d read about war in history books,
watched war movies on television and read articles about war in the newspapers,
but it didn’t affect me personally,
or so I thought.
While cleaning out my garage one day, I found a box filled with old family
photos. While sorting through them I came upon a picture of a young man dressed
in some kind of military uniform. He was wearing a pine green jacket and a
tartan kilt. He had a pleasant smile and looked genial. I was hypnotized by
alluring blue-gray eyes. I don’t know why, but I felt an instant bond
with him and had a great desire to know who this man was. I took the photograph
over to my mum’s house
and asked her if she knew who he was. She told me that he was her dad’s
brother, James Crawford. He was my great uncle. I asked her questions about
him and she told me he’d
died in one of the battles of World War I.
I decided that I was going to find out everything I could about this man.
After much research, I found that he was a member of the elite Scottish regiment,
the Royal Scots. This regiment fought valiantly during the war. I wrote a letter
to their headquarters At Edinburgh Castle, asking for information. I also sent
out many emails, asking questions, trying to gather as much information as
I could about him.
After a month or two, my efforts paid off. I got a package in the mail that
contained his army records. They told me all of his vital information, including
where he had died, at the Battle of the Somme, near Flanders’ fields,
I later found out that nobody in my family had ever gone to visit his grave.
They either hadn’t had time, had been too poor to travel from Scotland,
or it might have just been too painful for them. Perhaps they may not have
known where he was buried. I made up my mind that I was going to go. I was
going to Flanders’ fields
to visit and honor my Uncle Jim. He gave his life at the young age of nineteen,
in a muddy, rat infested trench, defending a place that wasn’t even his
homeland. Suddenly war did affect me. It became a reality. My sweet young uncle
had died in a war, a horrible war. It seemed such a waste of life. My whole
outlook on war and on life changed.
I started doing research about World War I in Western Europe. I ordered books,
went to the library and wrote more letters, trying to gather information about
this tragic event. I looked up everything there was to see on the Internet
about the Battle of the Somme. As I read and studied, I started to understand
the fear that my uncle and thousands of others felt that morning of July 1,
1916, as they came pouring out of the trenches and raced across the open fields
towards death. I read that in the first ten
minutes, 20,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Irish and
Canadian young men were massacred. Within half an hour, there were 60,000
young men lying dead on the muddy ground. This total didn’t include the
French casualties in their sector.
The dew-covered red poppies carpeting the hills were trampled down by the
boots of the soldiers as they ran, trying to climb through miles of sharp,
tangled, barbed wire fences. If the delicate petals weren’t smashed by
their boots, they were crushed by the bodies of the soldiers as they fell in
agony and in the gruesome misery of death.
As I read about this, I knew I needed to do something. I had to go to Flanders’ fields.
I had to go and find my uncle. I needed to kneel at his grave, talk to him,
see where he had died, feel his presence and maybe grasp what he went through.
I looked on the Internet and found a company in England that takes tours
to the World War I battlefields. I flew to London, where I met up with a group
of twelve others who also had an interest in the Somme. One man from Australia
was there to find his grandfather’s grave and do the same as I was -
pay tribute to our loved ones.
We took the ferry across the churning English Channel to Le Havre, France,
just as my uncle had done and then drove in a van toward Albert, a town in
the northeastern part of the country. During the war it was completely destroyed
by exploding shells and other destructive weapons. It has since been rebuilt
and sits nestled among forests of graceful, whispering aspens and majestic
pine trees of the Somme area, named after the Somme River, which flows through
this quiet part of France.
As we drove through the rolling green hills, our guide, James, pointed out
areas where some of the battles had taken place. Anticipation grew as we neared
Albert. Finally, we arrived. I was there! I was going to visit my uncle’s
grave! I was so excited, yet terribly sad at the same time.
The first night we sat in the lounge of the hotel, listening to James as
he told us all about the area. He handed out maps and books for us to look
at. We were going to be prepared and well informed for the next day.
In the morning after breakfast, we piled into the van and headed to the battlefields.
My uncle was killed near the tiny village of La Boisselle. He was buried in
the nearby Gordon Dump Cemetery. Since only two of us had lost a family member
in France, we went to our battlefields and cemeteries first. Gordon Dump Cemetery
The van pulled into an off road parking area. James pointed over to a ridge.
This was where the battle of La Boisselle took place; my uncle’s battle.
I was feeling very emotional. We drove right up to it. The ground was dug up
and riddled with mole-like trenches. Some had collapsed, but many were still
intact. We climbed down into them and walked along inside, just as my Uncle
Jim had done. Tears ran down my face with each step. I could smell the stench
of fear and death still, after all these years. James told us that we could
probably find pieces of shrapnel if we looked carefully, as so many bullets
and shells had been fired. My new friends offered to look for some for me.
One man found a bullet casing. Another found a rusty piece of shell. They both
gave me their discoveries. I treasure them.
James then drove us over to Gordon Dump Cemetery. I knew the exact plot number
of his grave. James dropped me off and took the rest of the group away. He
wanted to give me some time alone. It was raining, but I didn’t care.
I walked into the graveyard through a wrought-iron gate that was built into
a white limestone wall. I couldn’t believe how immaculate the cemetery was. There wasn’t
a weed growing anywhere among the rows of white crosses. I walked past them
reverently as the others drove off. I looked for the markings to direct me
to the grave. I finally found it. Someone had placed a rosebush and some poppies
near the headstone. I knelt down and inhaled the fragrance of one of the pink
rosebuds. It smelled fresh, like the rain-drenched air surrounding me. I placed
a wooden cross with his name written on it on top of his grave. I’d carried it all the way from home just for this tender moment. I
touched his name, James Crawford, age 19. I ran my hands over the white limestone
and wept. I talked to him through my tears. I told him that I loved him, how
proud I was of him and how sorry I was that he’d died that way. I told
him I wish I had known him. Suddenly, I realized that now I did know him. I
let him know that he wasn’t alone anymore.
I knew him now and I’d never forget him.
I looked up into the sky and noticed that the rain had stopped. I watched
as the clouds parted. The sun came out and at that moment I felt him next to
me, holding me in his arms, telling me he was all right and not to be sad.
When the group came back, they found me in tears. Much to my surprise, several
of them knelt next to me and wept with me.
The rest of the day we visited the other battlefields and went to my friend’s
grandfather’s grave. When James wanted to drop him off for his time
of solitude, he invited me to stay. Together we cried tears of joy, tears of
sorrow and tears of love.
These two young men, both only 19, and hundreds of thousands of others like
them, had died in this strange land, far away from home, very alone. Never
again would they be forgotten. It was a beautiful experience.
When the tour was over and I came home, I wrote up my uncle’s life
story. I added pictures I’d taken of his grave, a picture of a poppy, and the
poem, “In Flanders’ Fields.” I sent a copy of it to every
living relative of his, urging them to never forget this wonderful young man.
I know I never will. Whether we realize it or not, war means something to all
of us. It has affected everyone’s lives in one way
or another…it changed mine.
In Flander’s fields the poppies grow
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.
(In Flanders’ Fields, by John McRae)