Poppies were a common sight around the countryside on the Western Front of World War I. They flourished in the soil churned up by the fighting and shelling in the battlefields. That is why at the end of the war the Poppy was adopted as a symbol of Remembrance. A factory, staffed by disabled ex-servicemen, was established to produce them. It continues to do so today. The Chelsea Pensioners are the iconic faces of this community. They reside at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a 325-year-old home founded by King Charles II in the heart of London. Poppies are sold in different colours, each with different meanings but all to commemorate the losses of war. White poppies, for example, symbolize peace without violence, and purple poppies are worn to honour animals killed in conflict.
POPPY FIELDS FOREVER
just a short story from the memoirs of a Captain
He was very old now, but could still hold himself stiffly at attention before the monument. His war, the one to end all wars, now just a fading part of history. Very few could remember, first-hand, the savageness of the ordeal that had sent millions of young men to their deaths. Cannon fodder, they’d called them, sent before the guns to be mown down, blown apart by chunks of metal which had decimated their frail bodies. The cream of a generation; almost wiped out. He was haunted by the faces of the boys he’d had to order into battle, the ones who’d never come back. Yet one nameless ghost was able to bring a measure of comfort to his tormented mind. At the sound of the gun signaling the eleventh hour he was mentally transported back to the fields of Flanders.
The battle had raged for over two hours, with neither side gaining any advantage. Wave after wave of soldiers had been dispatched from the muddy trenches and sent over the top. So many had died already that day that he decided he could not afford to lose any more men before reinforcements arrived. Perhaps they’d give the remnants a few more days of life. There came a slight lull in the battle due to the sheer exhaustion of the men on both sides. During this interval, a young soldier came up to him requesting that he be allowed to go over the top. He looked at the boy who couldn’t have been more than nineteen years old. Was this extreme bravery in the face of the enemy or was the soldier so scared he just needed to get it over and done with?
“Why would you want to throw your life away soldier? It’s almost certain death to go out there.”
“My best friend went out over an hour ago, captain, and he hasn’t come back. I know my friend must be hurt and calling for me. I must go to him, sir, I must.”
There were tears in the boy’s eyes. It was as if this were the most important thing in the world to him.
“Soldier, I’m sorry, but your friend is probably dead. What purpose would it serve to let you sacrifice your life too?”
“At least I’d know I’d tried, sir, he’d do the same thing in my shoes. I know he would.”
He was about to order the boy back to the ranks, but the impact of his words softened his heart. He remembered the awful pain he’d felt himself when his brother had died. He’d never had the chance to say goodbye.
“All right soldier, you can go.”
Despite the horror all around them, he saw a radiant smile on the boy’s face, as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
“God bless you, sir,” said the soldier.
It was a long time before the guns fell silent for the last time and each side was allowed to gather their dead and wounded. The captain remembered the young soldier. He looked through the many piles of bodies. Young men. So many as to give an unreal quality to the scene before him. When he came to the makeshift hospital, he looked carefully through the casualties. He soon found himself before the prone body of the soldier, alive, but severely wounded. He knelt down beside the young man and gently laid a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m so sorry, son. I knew I was wrong to let you go.”
“Oh no, sir. I’m glad you did and I’m glad you’re here now so I can thank you. You see sir, I found my friend. He was badly wounded, but I was able to comfort him at the end. As I held him dying in my arms, he looked me in the eyes and said: “I knew you’d come.”
The young soldier faded between consciousness and oblivion for some time before he finally slipped away. The captain stayed by his side until the end, tears streaming quietly down his cheeks. Only in war could the happy endings be so terribly sad.
It was 11.00 am on the 11th of November 1918.
As the bugle played, the old captain envisioned once again the young soldier’s face. Looking up, he could almost hear the stone monument calling out to him: “I knew you’d come”.
see also LA GUERRA DI PIERO (THE WAR OF PIERO) by Italian composer and singer Fabrizio De Andrè (1968)
Lying down buried in a field of rye
‘t’s neither the rose’s nor the tulip’s eye
Watching your sleep in the ditches’ ol’ bed
But it’s a thousand red poppies instead