By Meg Sorick. Find other parts in the series and a family tree, here.
Meredith stared at the headstone. She always stopped at this one on the way to her great-grandfather’s grave. It read: Here Lies a British Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God. She pulled a single stem from the bouquet she carried, and laid it on the grass beneath the marker.
The breeze sent a chill up her spine. It was threatening to rain. The channel crossing from Dover to Calais this morning had been rough, and her stomach was just now settling. Then she’d navigated the roads of Flanders on the side opposite of which she was used to driving. Thank God Bedford House Cemetery was deserted on this early weekday afternoon in April. It was a beautiful place, surrounded by farms, quiet, reverent, profoundly sad. She drew in a deep breath of the cool damp air and walked on, moving further into the field of white markers.
The cluster of six headstones was about halfway in, near the center aisle on the left side. They were grouped in two rows of three, back to back, facing away from each other. Meredith walked around them, reading each name. These men had all served together, died on the same day, April 24,1915. One hundred years ago today. She came to the last one, her great grandfather, Lance Corporal, Frederick Jennings, Welsh Regiment. In one month’s time, 70,000 Allied soldiers, including Freddie Jennings, had died in the Second Battle of Ypres. He had been 22 years old, married less than a year, his young wife newly pregnant with the daughter he would never know.
A tear trailed down Meredith’s cheek. That daughter, Anne, was Meredith’s grandmother. Meredith buried her face in the bouquet and inhaled. The lilies’ delicate scent filled her nostrils and made her smile. What would Freddie Jennings think of his great granddaughter laying flowers on his grave? She was the only one left to do it, Gran had made Meredith promise she would go. It had been her dying wish. She conjured the image of the young man from the wedding photograph Gran had kept on her bedside table. He’d been tall and handsome. At 22, he retained some of the lanky awkwardness of youth.
The crunch of gravel behind her made Meredith turn sharply. Another car had pulled into the parking lot. She watched as the man emerged from the vehicle and walked in her direction. He stopped and consulted the sign at the entrance that explained the history and the layout of the cemetery. Well, she thought, the solitude had been nice while its lasted. She faced the headstone once again and rested her hand on top of it. “Goodbye, Freddie,” she murmured. “See you next year.”
“Don’t go on my account,” said the voice behind her.
Meredith jumped, sucking in a breath. The man had approached more quickly than she would have expected. She turned to face him as he moved closer. He was tall, quite handsome and… familiar? She smiled, recovering her manners. “It’s all right.”
He moved closer and stood beside her, his brow furrowing in concentration. He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and studied it, mumbling under his breath.
“What was that?” Meredith asked.
“Oh, sorry.” He gestured to the headstone. “I said I found him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been researching my family history. I’m the last one. Everyone else is gone.” He hung his head, cleared his throat. “I… I have no one. I’m all alone.”
Meredith’s eyes widened. “This is your…?” she began, lifting a hand and letting it drop.
“My great-grandfather and his brother were both killed in the war. Great granddad’s body was never found but… I believe this was his brother. I’ve found my great granduncle.”
Meredith laid the lilies on the grass in front of Frederick Jennings’ grave and turned to face the man. She smiled and held out her hand. “Hello, cousin. You’re not alone anymore.”
Header Image: Bedford House Cemetery, Flanders, Belgium. Photo my own.