Flanders Fields by Tobias Haglund

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Jack drives and I give direction. He stops at a smaller war grave cemetery in the countryside around Ypres. Large trees grow here and there, two by the entrance. He puts his hand on one of them and looks up along the trunk. He caresses the bark and repeats it on the other tree. Once in a while a car drives by, bird song comes from the tree tops and if you listen carefully you can hear the canal behind the bunker. We pass a few graves on the way to the bunker. Despite the daylight the inside darkens quickly, after only a few meters. Four small rooms, too small for Jack to stand up. He strokes the smooth mold. I also do. He closes his eyes towards the inner wall and breathes in and out. In and out. I step outside. A small brook flows below, not deep at all and it probably risks freezing every winter. Jack still kneels in the darkness. I call for him and he gets to his feet. He stops by the bulletin board outside. In Flanders Fields. Jack reads the poem by John McCrae and stands silent in front of it for a minute. He looks out over the thousands of poppies and says:

“Terrible. For that beauty to meet destruction in such a way. In every way…”

A dry voice from not talking for hours, hours which seem like years. I come closer and put my arm around his waist.

“Yes.”

“But it’s beautiful that the flowers were able to grow up, almost like an ode to the fallen.”

He walks up to a gravestone and reads the name out loud. “Seventeen-year-old. He must have known going to war was the same as committing suicide.”

“Awful.”

“Britons who died for the freedom of Belgium. There are worse things to die for, I guess. But still damn terrible. I’m going to read every name on all of these tombstones.”

“I understand.”

I follow him. He stops at a Briton who had grown as old as Leslie did.

“What are you thinking?”

“… On if he left his home, maybe his wife and kids…”

I can’t think of anything better to say. “Awful.”

I pat his back and walk to the next grave. And the next grave. Until the end of the row, but he stands still. I return.

“Jack..? Did you want to… Uhm. Did you know my mother’s great-grandfather died in the war. I don’t know if I ever told you. Nineteen years old. Shot in the chest somewhere in Wallonia.”

“Oh… I didn’t know.”

“No. Nowadays you can survive such a thing, but those days, in the trenches.”

“He must have been young with your mother’s grandmother then, your great-grandmother.”

“Yes. He was forced into battle, just like everyone else in Belgium, by Germans who just stormed in and turned Belgium into a battlefield.”

“…Of mud, trenches and mustard gas.”

He points at the almost dried up brook, which looked more like a ditch.

“Some of those resting here, probably floated there.”

“Oh don’t say that.”

He stares at the brook. I read the names of the graves which had names, pass a dozen unmarked graves, just A Soldier of the Great War. Jack stands still by the brook. He quakes.

“How are you?”

“Death is so present here. It reminds me how we part from loved ones with just a snap. All good things must come to an end, even so our tale.”

“Who said that?”

“Jack, Flanders Fields, Belgium.”

He tries to smile and takes my hand.

“Come. We have hundreds of graves left.”

“Jack…?”

He turns his back. His tall presence. He only shows me his quivering back and he waves me off.

“Not now.”

I step closer, hug him, and clasp my hands around him.

“Jack, please.”

He turns around. His tormented face is old.

“Yes?”

I look up into his eyes, those eyes in pain; a full moon in an inland lake.

“Why won’t you come with me to see Leslie’s grave?”

“I can’t. I just can’t. All that’s left of our daughter is a wooden cross in an anonymous war cemetery. I’m here. Honoring the sons of thousands of fathers and mothers, hoping that at least one will honor my child. Because I can’t. Do you think she held someone’s hand during it all?”

“Don’t think like that.”

“That’s all I can think of. Did she think of us? Call for us? When two maybe three men held her down… I can’t. There’s nothing left. Nothing. Only destruction.”

Tobias Haglund

The image of the graves is from John McCrae Memorial Site in Flanders, and below is a photograph of the actual poem, also taken from the same site (press to zoom in):

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

10 thoughts on “Flanders Fields by Tobias Haglund

  1. Tobias, you did justice to the poem by writing a beautiful and heart-renching story of mourning. This was a Monday morning gift. Always, June

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  2. A very moving and heartfelt piece. Impressive that you were able to draw upon a personal experience to remember the past but also to create a new story with its own depth and resonance. Very nicely done Tobbe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Nik. As always your encouragement makes me a better writer! I wanted to make it relevant again, which it of course is! but add a current reflection to it. Thanks for your kind words!
      ATVB my friend
      Tobbe

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  3. A period in history that always fills me with emotion Tobias and you have handled this beautifully by making it so very personal to your two characters. The twist at the end was heart wrenching. It is obvious from this that your visit to the cemetery touched you deeply and surely that is the greatest memorial we can give to fallen heroes. Well done.

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    • Thank you, Diane. Yes I was deeply touched. I literally did what Jack in the story did, touched the ground, the trees and read the names, those graves which had names. You can’t of course notice it on the picture, but during that day I had hypertension which I think also affected me heavily. That day was both emotionally and physically an exhaustive day.I’m lucky though, that my Belgian princess has a family full of doctors who spotted it. Not only am I from Sweden and hence not burdened by the world wars in the same way as other countries, but when I look at the reminders of the WWI and feel ill, I am surrounded by doctors. I’m lucky, they were not. All I can hope is I did the travesty justice in some way. I’m very glad you think I did! ATVB my friend
      Tobias

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      • Btw. Isn’t symbolic in some way, that Sophie and I shadow the poem In Flanders Field in that photograph? I’m trying not to see it as a bad thing, as in I’m clouding it, but shadow as in following. A tribute. Hopefully. 🙂

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  4. Hi Tobias, this has a strong message, empathic writing and a heart-breaking reality. I do believe that you have complimented the poem exquisitely.
    Excellent!
    Hugh

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Hugh, that’s very kind of you. I was conscious, as you know, and even doubted this story. The war cemeteries still stand there and all over the world, but instead of a lesson learned they are accompanied by an ever-growing population of gravestones. Thank you very much!
      ATVB my friend
      Tobias

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