In Flanders Field by Marcia J. Lingard
It was just a few short miles from home, but it was like another world, another lifetime . . .
HE should not be there, in the horror of a Flanders trench. Like many of his comrades, he was young. Too young to be seeing the horrors of war first-hand.
Instead, he should be in the sun-drenched fields of Kent, helping to harvest the ripened corn.
The same sun shone in Flanders, and bright red poppies swayed in the cooling breeze just as they did in the cornfields of southern England.
The birds still sang their hearts out, but in that war-torn land they were drowned out by the relentless pounding of artillery guns.
The summer rain that helped ripen the crops around his village turned these foreign fields into an unending sea of mud, which seemed to seep into every stitch of uniform.
He would not have been there at all but for the challenging finger of Lord Kitchener on the poster in the village hall.
Your country needs you!
It had prompted a sudden burst of patriotic zeal the length and breadth of Britain.
He and his drinking cronies at the Ring O’ Bells Inn had rushed to the recruiting office in the nearby town and enlisted, ready and willing to face the enemy.
Weeks later, after basic training and embarkation leave, the day came for them to go to war.
Mothers tearfully hugged their sons, remembering them rushing down that same country lane on their first day at school, not so long ago.
Fathers with suspiciously moist eyes shook them by the hand, realising for perhaps the first time that their boys were now young men, ready to fight for King and Country.
Young lovers shared a last lingering embrace, and promised to be true.
Then they marched away in their new khaki uniforms, seen off by almost the entire village, with bands playing and flags fluttering in the breeze.
If many tears were shed that day by wives, girlfriends and mothers, they were proud tears.
And there were words of comfort to be had.
“Over by Christmas!” the papers said. But that hope had proven somewhat misplaced, and still the war dragged on.
He should not be there in Flanders. He should be in the cosy little cottage in the Kent countryside, enjoying the first few months of married life.
Ever since he had first glimpsed her, shyly serving behind the counter of her father’s shop, there had been no-one for him but Dora.
He had courted her with bunches of flowers from the hedgerows and had shyly taken tea with her parents on Sundays.
He kissed her on moonlit evenings as they walked in the woods and lanes of the village, made her promises of eternal love, and longed to make her his own.
Although she had returned his kisses willingly enough, she had held herself back until the happy day when he was home on an all-too-short leave, and they married in the village church. She had looked beautiful in a pretty white dress, with a coronet of daisies in her hair.
In her hand she had carried a simple bunch of wild flowers tied with a white ribbon.
He was the proudest man on earth.
Many of those same villagers who had waved the new recruits goodbye turned out again to wish the newlyweds well, and shared their provisions so that the young couple could have a wedding breakfast.
Some time later, as their friends feasted and danced the night away, the bride and groom slipped upstairs to the lovingly prepared bedroom.
They were so pleased when the farmer he worked for had told them they could rent the small cottage near the farmhouse, and Dora spent many happy hours cleaning and scrubbing, and making it a comfortable home for them to share.
He should have been with her.
Instead, she stood in the quiet cottage garden, straining her ears as if to hear across the Channel the low but unmistakable sound of gunfire.
She looked down the lane, hoping against hope she wouldn’t see the telegraph boy coming with his dreaded envelope.
She thought about the last letter she received from him, which said very little except that he loved her and missed her, and longed to hold her in his arms again.
She hugged that thought to herself, and tried to forget the rest of the letter, which had mentioned that they were expecting a big push soon.
She did not understand what he meant by that; she just wondered what he was having to endure, and prayed for his safe return.
She willed him somehow to know, as she did, that already new life flickered within her.
She desperately wished that he was with her, so that he could share her excitement, and make plans for their life after this dreadful war was over.
Such a happy little family they would be, in their cosy cottage.
She went back inside and carefully put a small bunch of wild flowers – just like the ones in her wedding bouquet – into a pretty glass vase, beside a photograph of a smiling young man in khaki.
He was not with her, of course.
Just a few watery miles separated the hell on earth that was Flanders from the peaceful English village that was home, but it was like another world, another lifetime.
He should not be there, where the bright red poppies blew among the golden corn; where the sound of birdsong was drowned out by the sound of gunfire.
He should not be there in the mud of a Flanders trench.
But there he was, and there he would stay.
Private Frank Thomas.
Another name that would eventually be carefully inscribed on the war memorial in the village churchyard; a war memorial where one day she would take her small son, young Frankie, to remember.
Where she would one day tell him about his soldier father, and all the other brave young men who had fought and died in a foreign field.
A war memorial where still, today, a hundred years later, red poppies brighten up a grey November day, and people still gather to remember, as the haunting notes of the Last Post fade away in the still morning air. ■