Spring didn’t want to come that year. How could she bring joy, hope, renewal, to such desolation. These fields had been fields of life, fertile, rich with crops, green and glad in the sun and rain; now they were fields of death. Even her tears wouldn’t help, there had been rain enough already here to flood this world with misery: rain of water to turn it all to sickening, stinking mud; rain of bullets and rain of poison to fill that mud with death and despair. It was the grim antithesis of everything Spring was.
There was no love, there was no tenderness, there were no seeds of life left to be kissed awake by the warmth of gentle rain. There was only endless, frozen, bitter grey from one horizon to another, and little men in foetid trenches dancing clumsily in their chorus-lines of mutual destruction. Spring knew how to bring returning life to the sleeping kingdom of Winter, but what could she do here? This was no sleep, this was hell awakened and walking on the fair green earth, poisoning the world to ruin with every step of its polished military boots. Despair, terror and hatred had set up their camps in this place, and senseless brutality was the commanding officer. Men, reduced from the dreams of their golden youth to being herded around with less value than cattle in an abattoir, milled around in regimented madness while their living flesh rotted on their bones and their actions were reduced to mere survival. But even survival was countermanded here; death lay before them at a superior officer’s order, death lay behind them, from their own, if they should panic, break ranks and flee. The soul itself became a casualty when the choking gas clouds rolled across, and few could maintain their honour in such a terrible place.
Spring watched in silent horror. What could she do to bring hope to such a place? What action of hers could bring any promise of love and loveliness where these men – mere boys, so many of them – were losing their lives or their humanity day after day in endless greyness? How could she even whisper of resurrection beside the maddening thunder of the guns? Yet come she must, by eternal decree one season must follow another, each in its turn. Yet this was no time or place for baby birds or skipping lambs.
Then, while, in spite of herself, her tears coursed down as the thawing rain, she saw, in this terrible grey-brown twilight, a tiny flash of scarlet, a scarlet that was not the blood of man. It was a flower with wide, paper-thin petals, vibrantly, shockingly red – a poppy!
And then she knew what was needed. She had no power to stop hate and destruction, they came from the pit of hell through the heart of man. But as she laboured to bring new life and beauty into the world, she could nurture, not only a symbol of hope, but a symbol of remembrance, red as the blood so wastefully spilt on this ugly, churned up ground. One day the fields of Flanders would be covered with scarlet poppies, and they would encourage men to try another way.