This is a short story that I wrote for inclusion in an anthology, put together by members of the Bournemouth Writers' Circle and titled, 'Bournemouth Reflections of The Great War 1914 -18'. The antholgy is availble to purchase and any profits from its sale go to the Forest Holme Hospice Charity. A hospice to enhance the quality of life for patients with cancer and other life-limiting illnesses.

 

The Pool of Peace

I had known very little of the First World War and nothing of my grandfather who had died in it, all those many years ago. But, standing here beside this silent pool, surrounded by a copse of vaulted green, in the heart of the Belgian countryside, I suddenly became aware of an overwhelming connection with him.

                ‘If it’s not too much trouble,’ my mum had said in her shaky voice a few days before we were due to leave, ‘you know, while you’re there, perhaps see if you can find your granddads grave.’

                I’d laughed saying, ‘millions died mum, it’s hardly likely we’ll find him in a weekend! And besides we’re really only going to get some booze.’

                She’d looked hurt at my off-hand remark and so I qualified it with, ‘do we even know where he was in France? You’ve never said much about him.’ As I’d made the comment a twinge of guilt bubbled up, as realising… I’d probably never asked.

                ‘Your grandma told me he saw action at Ypres, near a town I think they called Whitesheet.’ She added.

                Although my knowledge of this war was less than rudimentary, some names still conjured their own depth of gravity, The Somme, Paschendale… Ypres; the blood red poppies on Remembrance Day, evoking the slaughter.

                Mum had looked wistful, her eyes moist as she’d spoken again, ‘twenty two – that’s all he was. Killed before he even knew I was on the way.’ She’d hung her head avoiding my gaze and I suspected to hide her tears, whispering, ‘This world can be so cruel at times.’

                 ‘Sorry mum… I didn’t mean to upset you.’

                ‘It’s ok dear,’ she’d said, dabbing a hanky at her cheek, ‘I’m just being silly. All the same, it would be nice to know where he’s buried. I wasn’t able to visit, never had the time and your grandma wouldn’t take me. And now, all these years later… I’m just not up to it.’  

                Even though I knew she’d never known her father, I hadn’t seen her like this before. Although, with the media coverage advertising the forthcoming centenary of the outbreak, I wondered whether it was rekindling old grievances. At ninety-seven, and thoughts of her own mortality frequenting the limelight, she too would probably be wondering what lay in store. Not outwardly religious, but perhaps, she was anticipating a moment; one, where she too, would pass from this world and maybe… meet her father for the very first time.  

                ‘Look I can’t promise anything,’ I’d offered, ‘but if you’ve got anything that might help us – letters or postcards from him, photographs, we’ll give it a go.’ After all, I acknowledged to myself, it gives us a true goal, and arguably better than just our liquid incentive.

                With the meagre information she’d given me, I’d set about some on-line research. Overwhelmed by the mass of information about this war, my re-emergent negativity threatened to stop me in my tracks. But persevering, the more I found, the more I read. The stories of selfless acts and of immense heroism brought unexpected emotions, and a realisation that these were no comic book super heroes, but mere boys, not much different to my youngest, Jake. It brought on a morbid fascination as each new battle, listed its dead and wounded; five thousand, ten thousand, fifty thousand - after a while, the numbers seemed to pale in significance.

                The Village of Wytschaete, its correct spelling, on what had been known as the Messines Ridge was where my deliberations had led me. It was here, I’d concluded, although could not be sure, that my great grandfather had fought with the Royal Irish Rifles at the centre of a massive offensive on the 7th of June 1917. Like most battlefield sites, I doubted there would be much evidence of conflict having taken place, apart from of course, the usual regimented cemeteries and solemn memorials; but for some reason a site known as ‘The Pool of Peace’ intrigued me. So, armed with a new sense of purpose, we had headed for an unpronounceable area of the Belgian countryside, where the infamous Spanbroekmolen mine had been detonated, nearly a hundred years ago.

******

                At six fifteen in the morning, I’d left the family sleeping in a small hotel just north of Wytschaete.  I had had a restless night, fretting, uncharacteristically, over whether we would actually find my grandfather’s grave. And so, with the sun blazing over the village’s dominant church spire, on this warm May morning, had strode out along a road heading west. Gently descending, the relatively featureless Flanders countryside, had lain before me. Much, I assumed, as it had done for the Germans all those years ago; the commanding views over the British trenches, making it of strategic importance.

                I had learnt that this ridge had been targeted by the British, nearly a year before the intended attack, tunnelling into it and laying mines along its five mile length. A monstrous labyrinth, containing 19 huge stock piles of high explosives designed specifically to eradicate the German armies well entrenched above them. On the morning of the attack these mines had been exploded just ahead of the advancing British troops. It was said that when the ridge erupted, the violent explosions could be heard as far away as London. 6000 Germans were killed in an instant, signalling the start of the battle of Messines. By far and away the biggest mine was the one I had headed for, Spanbroekmolen, named after the Windmill that had turned there for hundreds of years before. No windmill now, just an isolated copse of trees standing out in this open landscape, marking the site.

                My first stop had been to the little Lone Tree Cemetery on the opposite side of the road. The internet had informed me that there were 88 burials here, mostly from my grandfather’s regiment, six were unknown. This had seemed the most likely place to find him and as I’d walked through the little gate, took in the serried ranks of headstones. It had taken no more than five minutes to pass eighty two graves, my eagerness to catch a glimpse of the family name, dismissing offhandedly, those that were laid to rest. With a heavy heart I had come upon the six unknowns, the harsh unblemished stonework offered no solace. ‘Is this you grandad?’ I had asked looking along the row, the reality of not finding him, proving an emotional blow.

                With expectations in ruins, the thought of telling mum that I couldn’t find him, upset me greatly. I had walked back along the silent ranks heading for the trees across the road, and took my time, studying those named, in brief moments of respect. 

                As I entered the slightly elevated little wood along a wide track, the tree line fell away behind me revealing a near circular clearing, some two hundred and fifty feet across. And within this hallowed space, virtually from edge to edge was a beautiful pool. I stopped and gazed out at the serene expanse of water, remembering how it had been so violently formed.  Reportedly, the officers had drunk Champagne in the chamber, as the last box of the 90,000lbs of Ammonol high explosives had been brought along the 500 metre tunnel. However, their celebrations might not have been so hearty, if they had known the tragedy that was to occur.

                Like all military operations timing is critical, and back then, the detonations just seconds ahead of the attack, meant that the British infantry were swarming out of their trenches, even as hurtling debris dropped around them. What the heroic young men of the Royal Irish Rifles could not have realised was, that to their front, Spanbroekmolen had not yet exploded. Fifteen seconds late, it erupted killing many of the advancing soldiers. But with the enemy positions devastated along the entire front, the British troops were spared the mechanised slaughter of the machine guns. By the end of that day, the overall objectives had been achieved, and the Germans, stunned, by the ferocity of the offensive.

                Despite the early hour, the encircling trees offered shelter from the light breeze, creating a micro-climate of warmth. I sat down close to the water’s edge. A raft of wild water lilies stretched out two metres around the entire pond. It was a lovely scene, undisturbed and calm, creating the impression that the outside world was miles away. Looking at it now I realised why it had been so aptly named. But I couldn’t help wonder if this was where my grandfather had fallen. His last moments, almost certainly anything but peaceful. I hoped he hadn’t suffered, the thought brought a lump to my throat and stifling back tears, lay down.

                Startled awake, I felt momentarily confused and, glancing at my watch, was grateful that only ten minutes had gone by.

                ‘Uh… must off dropped off there.’ I chastised myself.

                ‘Aye, looks like you were having a grand nap.’

Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement and swung round to see who had spoken. ‘Jake?’ He was right in the sun and difficult to see, but the outline was that of my twenty year old son.

                ‘Didn’t hear you creep up on me. How…’ I was looking more closely and let my words trail off. The person beside me was so like Jake and yet, I knew in an instant that it wasn’t - the thick accent, the clothes. He was young probably around twenty, but weathered and tanned, his close cropped hair showed off his strong features and smiling face.

                ‘You’ll be John, Sheila’s lad,’ he said.

Taken aback and staring, ‘Yes,’ I whispered, my mouth suddenly getting dry. ‘Who’… I started taking in the uniform.

                ‘Micheal,’ he said with an outstretched palm. ‘But yer might be happier to call me granddad,’ there was a twinkle in his eye, ‘if it helps.’

                ‘Yes,’ I said weakly accepting the truth of it and without even questioning how. I slipped my hand into his. A warmth spread through me at a rush, like clouds parting on a sunny day.

                ‘You’re to tell your ma, that I’m fine. I was lucky, didn’t suffer y’see… not like some. It was over in an instant,’ he said gazing out into the distance. He pointed up towards the little cemetery, ‘An you were right, I’m one of the six.’

                 ‘You were unlucky not to have realised the mine hadn’t exploded, I said finding my voice.’

                ‘Aye, well it wouldn’t have mattered either way,’ he said matter-of-factly.

                ‘Yes, but surely you could have held back, found out what was going on.’

                ‘To be sure’, he said in his soft lilt, ‘but our orders were to advance even if it hadn’t blown.’

                ‘Jesus,’ I said acknowledging the unimaginable dilemma, ‘that takes some guts.’

                ‘Aye maybe, maybe,’ he said looking thoughtful, ‘better odds though, than facing down heavily defended trenches. Not guts John… just discipline.’

                ‘Surely you must have been frightened?’

                ‘Absolutely terrified. We all were; men were throwing up with the strain of it, right up to the whistle.’

                ‘I…I can’t imagine it.’ And shaking my head, ‘don’t think I could do it.’

                ‘Well I hope you never have to.’ He said bluntly. And turning to look at me with his shining eyes and beatific smile, added, ‘Things look right and dandy for you. And you’ve been good to your mum. I couldn’t ask for a better grandson.’

                Away in the distance a church bell struck; a prelude to morning prayers. Automatically, I turned to look and in that instant felt a breeze upon my skin. Then once again awoke confused and disorientated. I looked round to see if my grandfather was still there. But of course, he was gone.

******

On my way back to the hotel, I pondered on my dream. Was it just me… had I conjured it all, and in such detail? So much so, that I could describe his cap badge, the fusilier flashing on his shoulder, the buckle on his belt. The middle aged French receptionist at the hotel, gave me a smile, saying in her broken English. 

                ‘For a walk, yes?’

                ‘Oui,’ I answered, using up my stock of the vocabulary, ‘To the Pool at Spanbroekmolen.’

                ‘Ah yes, it is beautiful, I think?’ but seeing the angst on my face, added profoundly, ‘You have spoken with someone… yes? When you were there.’

Nodding in bewilderment, my expression must have said it all. She cupped a hand to her mouth, whispering, ‘Les Soldat.’

                The experience left me very subdued for the rest of the short break and I drove home in near silence. I pondered on what mum would say, would she believe my story and buy into what the Madam had said about the souls of the men killed? ‘It is believed by many’, she’d explained, ‘that the the soldiers still cling to that tranquil piece of countryside and that on rare occasions, are glimpsed there’. I didn’t really know what to think. Mum on the other hand, I felt sure would jump at it. Turning it over in my mind, I vowed somehow to get granddads name carved on one of the blank headstones, it was the least I could do. But I think what had really upset me, were his final words and, imagined or not, my one regret would always be that I’d not used those fleeting moments in thanks to him; acknowledging the huge sacrifice made and his true worth to us, as a family. The lump was back in my throat, as, comparing his world to mine… what the hell had I ever done?

Authors note:This is a fictional story set around actual events from the First World War. The Messines Ridge, the mines, the late detonation of the largest at Spanbroekmolen, the Irish rangers, the pool and the little cemetery, all factual.

“©” Copyright James Donnelly 2014

Scriblings so far: - Un-natural selection (book) - Holding out for a Hero (book project) - Passport to Sanity (short story) - A virtual miracle (short story)