Skylarks over Flanders Fields

‘They wrote of skylarks – in letters, and some, in poems – those soldiers that lived and died in France during the Great War’ writes Jacqueline Winspear in her poignant essay, Skylarks above No Man’s Land, which chronicles her ‘pilgrimage to the battlefields of The Somme and Ypres.’

‘Every morning when I was in the front-line trenches I used to hear the larks singing soon after we stood-to about dawn. But those wretched larks made me more sad than almost anything else out here…. Their songs are so closely associated in my mind with peaceful summer days in gardens in pleasant landscapes in Blighty. Here one knows the larks sing at seven and the guns begin at nine or ten…’

Letter home, 1916 – Sergeant-Major F.H. Keeling.

Poppies (in a field in the Goucestershire Cotswolds)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
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

– From In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae, May 1915.


Returning, We hear the Larks
By Isaac Rosenberg

Sombre the night is
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lies there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp –
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! joy – joy – strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.

I found on YouTube, this Decca Argo recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending (surely one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of music ever written) conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, the Academy of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields.The violinist is Iona Brown and, alongside her deeply soulful and wonderful performance, the video’s creator, AntPDC, has skilfully blended evocative and peaceful scenes of the Derbyshire Peak District in May.

The longing for such scenes as these, the ways in which lark-song evoked their memory, and a complexity of response – the sadness, the loss, the pain in sharpened contrasts: the beauty beside the horror, the balm mixed with helpless dread; the tearing schisms between the carnage of the battlefield and the ever-onward rhythms of nature – we hear all this, and more, in the soldiers’ voices. Vaughan Williams’ sublime music seems so fitting for remembrance. It carries upon its wings the depth of value in all that those soldiers, caught in the hell of war, longed for and lost.

In honour of the sacrifices of previous generations, and in memory of the countless victims of war throughout time, worldwide… In a reaching towards life and peace and towards a world in which we value and nurture all that most sustains – and for the hope that such a world could become our reality… For the wish not to squander the opportunities and lessons passed on to us, but to come together to build a better present and a better future… We remember.

10 thoughts on “Skylarks over Flanders Fields

  1. Dear Melanie,
    I’ve been waiting for your next post, and it did not disappoint…The larks and their hope and sublime joyfulness just wring the heart in those terrible places.
    I always feel sad when I hear them singing above the meadows where development is just Beginning, and before they realise that there is no home for them there anymore… but innocent larks on a battlefield is so bloody in every sense of the word, as their nests are torn apart in the shells and bombs as well as the boys with them…
    I wrote a piece about the Somme on 6July 2012, – my step grandfather was on the first line that stepped out on that sunny shocking morning.
    This is such a poignant time, and your post captured it perfectly… ;Loved the video..

    • Dear Valerie, it’s heartwarming and an honour to think that you have been waiting for my next post! It’s been difficult finding time to catch up with blogging lately; more posts are in the pipeline – and one I started writing weeks ago is imminent; it just needs final checks and edits – but squeezing everything into the hours available just seems to leave my half-prepared pieces lingering in the wings, day after day! I’m so looking forward to being able to clear a nice quiet space to really settle down and enjoy reading more of your insightful thoughts on your blog. I shall look for your post about the Somme and your step grandfather. What terrible times those were. So much horror; such huge and devastating loss…

      I wonder what those soldiers, who found such complex solace in the songs of the skylarks, would think of the dramatic decline of the species in recent times; how they would feel about how successive generations have been so careless with such a treasure. That sadness we feel in knowing that the skylarks sing, oblivious to the coming developments that will rob them of their habitat, is so tied up with memory and the quieter rhythms of our own lives. It’s like, in not leaving space for the skylarks, we no longer leave ourselves space to dream and to just be… The skylarks are a potent symbol, still, of what’s truly valuable in life. Dreadful to think that they are now a Red List species. A shocking loss both in its own right for the skylarks – but also, in so many ways for us too…

  2. Great stuff… particularly the bittersweet notes, as if the lark’s song encapsulates that sense of mourning something before it has even gone, as you say in your comment: from the soldiers dreaming of home, to our fore-knowledge today which finds each moment we relish in nature followed by acknowledging a threat to its existence… perhaps every generation comes to that point, in its best light as a deep appreciation of what we have.

    On a lighter note, amidst the solemnity, I can’t read McCrae’s poem without hearing Miss Jean Brodie, played by Geraldine McEwan, proclaiming about her ‘great love who died on Flanders Fields’.

    • Thanks so much, as ever, for the lovely comment and reflective thoughts. Your words: ‘perhaps every generation comes to that point, in its best light as a deep appreciation of what we have’ encapsulate a good place to emerge from the bittersweet, I think – a point at which appreciation just might drive us onwards to taking more care…

      Your thoughts on how our relished moments in nature are so often mixed with the threatened shadow of loss, made me think again of Simon Barnes’s powerful article about hen harriers in the current issue of the RSPB’s magazine, Nature’s Home. He writes about ‘the soul-deep joy that the wild world brings us so often with such reckless generosity’ and how ‘If you have a taste for wildlife, you have to get used to being sad and you have to get used to being angry.’ Words that truly resonate – and which also carry the hope represented by all the people who care enough to want to work to make things better.

      On the lighter Miss Jean Brodie note, ah yes – the ‘crème de la crème’ would have been hanging on her every word! I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Geraldine McEwan version (I always hear Maggie Smith’s voice in my head whenever I imagine a Miss Jean Brodie outpouring!)

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