by Margo Wayman
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 the man’s 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 mom’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. Through much research, I found that he
was a member of the elite Scottish regiment, the Royal Scots, which 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
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, France.
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. 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, who gave
his life at the young age of nineteen, in muddy, rat infested trenches,
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 dead. This 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
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
signed up and in April, 1999, I flew to London, where I met 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 me,
pay tribute to our loved ones.
We took the ferry across the churning
English Channel to Le Havre, France, just as my uncle had, 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 whispering aspens and majestic pine trees of the Somme area,
named after the Somme River that 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 and 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 was
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, 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
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
with him. Together we cried tears of joy, tears of sorrow and tears of
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 the 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
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
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders’ fields.
Take up our quarrel with the
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