On Remembrance Day

Poppies

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.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
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.
— Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872 – 1918)

This poem was written in 1915 by a Canadian from Guelph, Ontario, very near my hometown and the city where I attended university. He wrote it during World War I, after witnessing the death of a friend and fellow soldier. He was apparently unsatisfied with it, and tore it out of the notebook where he had written it. The page was rescued by a fellow officer and the poem printed in Punch magazine. In 1918, a professor at the University of Georgia, who spent the war years on leave to help train YWCA workers in New York, wrote a poem of her own in response.

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
— Moina Michael (1869 – 1944)

It was from this response, and the last stanza in particular, that we now wear red poppies on Remembrance Day.

I learned the John McCrae poem when very young, in grade school. I’m sure we memorized the whole thing; perhaps we recited it as a class as part of an assembly. A portion of the poem has even been printed on the current Canadian $10 bills. Despite that at one time or another most of us have probably learned the whole thing, I suspect the majority of young Canadians only know the first two lines: “In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row”. That’s all I’m able to remember; I had to look up the rest. We probably don’t know why we wear poppies, aside from the obvious connection to the first line in McCrae’s poem. I suspect most young Canadians have never heard Moina Michael’s poem; certainly I never did (or if I had, it wasn’t emphasized the way McCrae’s was).

At just 29, I am far too young to be able to remember either of the wars we are commemorating on Remembrance Day. Even my parents are unable to remember the wars themselves, born after the second ended, although as children of the baby boomer generation they surely felt the effects on their daily lives when young. My grandfather would sometimes share stories from his war days when he was stationed in southern Ontario monitoring radio frequencies for enemy activity (I think). The only story I can remember in any detail was of him stashing a young, barely-clothed woman under his bed when his senior officer dropped in unexpectedly during his shift.

For the most part, I understand what took place during the two world wars. I recognize that our freedom today is largely due to the sacrifices made by the soldiers in those wars. I appreciate their sacrifice, I give thanks to the deceased, and honour the fallen soldiers. I purchase a red plastic poppy to show my respect, which I pin on to my purse where it won’t fall off so easily, lasting most of the year till next Remembrance Day.

But I cannot remember. The only war to have taken place within my conscious awareness has been the current one, and unfortunately, while I support the troops who are there, the war itself is not one I believe in. I can read all about the horrors of the two world wars, I can learn the poems and observe the moment of silence; I can understand and I can recognize, but I can’t relate. With each generation, the connection to those wars becomes frailer. To today’s youth, for my own children when I have them, the stories of the wars are little more than that: stories. The child knows what to believe, knows how to act, but they do so only because they are told to do so. Is it possible to engage a child to connect with a past they’ve never known?

Last year on Remembrance Day I heard a radio show by Canadian Stuart McLean, author of the Vinyl Cafe short stories (the Canadian equivalent of the US Prairie Home Companion or Lake Woebegon stories). I must have been driving somewhere for something, as I rarely have the radio on at home, and the show happened to be on. It was a Remembrance Day special, and there was one story that he told that really stuck with me, of a man who travels with his family overseas to France on a tour of a number of the sites, including Dieppe and Vimy. He brings his bagpipes with him, and offers a moving tribute to the fallen soldiers at Vimy Ridge. But the story notes that it is only after having visited the historical sites themselves that the man feels any connection to the events of the past.

The CBC shares its shows online as podcasts. You can download the Stuart McLean Remembrance Day podcast here. The whole show is worth listening to, but the story above starts at about 24:00 minutes, and is about 22 minutes long.

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11 responses to “On Remembrance Day

  1. I think that the fact that we have no wars to remember in two generations (and three, including our children) is due to the acts of our veterans. I think that remembering (not remembering the wars themselves, but the fact that there was a war and so many people gave up their lives for it) is even more important because we have never experienced an actual war. Although really, we have — neither World War was fought on Canadian soil.

    I have so many clients who are veterans. I have a radar technician, I have a guy who actually dropped the bombs, I have several pilots. I had a German soldier who was scarred for life for having to be in the German army fighting for a cause he didn’t believe was right. He had to join the army when he was just a teenager and was in it for years before becoming a POW, which he said was the best part of the war. He was forever resentful that he had to give up his youth for the war. He always said that “war belongs in the garbage”.

    • That’s a good point, Tahlia. I think “remembrance” is a bit of a misnomer, in any case, even in a less literal sense of the word. Maybe they need to change the way it’s emphasized at school, then, or at least the schools that I went to. I think for me, growing up, it didn’t feel all that different from some sort of religious training, like Bible school or something. I don’t think I ever really understood just what the day was all about. To me, as a kid, it was a day of poppies and crosses and one-minute silences. Maybe it would be more to the point to take the kids on a field trip that day and go to a cemetery where there are rows upon rows of crosses (even a relatively small assemblage of a hundred would seem like a huge number to a kid) and explain that each one represents someone who died for our freedom. I dunno. Death and sacrifice and suffering and conflict are all so far outside the realm of familiarity of most children.

      Working with the veterans would also give you perspective, I think, especially those who were involved in the fighting. Being able to hear their firsthand stories. I don’t think we ever had a veteran come to our school to speak.

  2. Grandad was stationed at Mount Hope in Hamilton, where he was a radar operator. Radar was invented early in the 20th century, but it was during the War that the English developed it to detect planes. The term RADAR was coined in 1941 as an acronym for RAdio Detection And Ranging. This is what the Hamilton Historical Board says about Mt. Hope:

    THEY SLIPPED THE SURLY BONDS OF EARTH
    The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (B.C.A.T.P.) was inaugurated in 1939 at the onset of the Second World War to provide air training for Commonwealth airmen, safely removed from active war zones. The Canadian Government sponsored this war-winning plan which produced approximately 140,000 airmen and 45,000 ground crew.
    Six of the one hundred and seven Canadian B.C.A.T.P airfields were located in this part of Ontario. No. 33 Air Navigation School at Mount Hope was established in 1941 in addition to No. 10 Elementary Flying School and No. 1 Air Wireless School. Between November 1941 and December 1943, sixteen R.A.F. servicemen in the Air Navigation School died while in training here and all but two were buried in St. Paul’s Glanford Anglican Church Cemetery. A service of remembrance has been held annually for these men who lie far from home. In 2000, a Remembrance Garden was planted by the congregation and dedicated to the memory of these R.A.F. members.
    Hamilton Historical Board 2005

    Most of the men in Grandad’s squadron in England became tail gunners. One def. I found says this:

    A very brave bloke who sat for hours in the rear gun turret of a WW2 bomber having the shit shot out of him by enemy fighters. It was lonely freezingly cold job with a high mortality rate.
    A WW2 bomber had several defensive gun turrets, the rear one was the most vunerable to being hit by an enemy fighter’s machine guns.

    Small men were assigned to this because they fit the space available. Many of the young men Grandad knew died. Grandad alone was sent to Mt. Hope. The reason? He knew Morse Code. His father, a sea captain, had taught it too him years ago and they used it to “talk” around the house, so he was very good at it. Thus, he was pulled out of the group and came to Canada instead.

    • I had no idea about any of that. I wonder why I never asked? Maybe I assumed that Grandad didn’t want to talk about it, the stereotype is that the war veterans don’t want to talk about what went on during the war, that it upsets them. That was a lucky break for Grandad. I didn’t realize that was how he came to Canada, either. So much we don’t know about our elders, or only learn when we are young and can’t appreciate or remember.

      • I don’t remember the scantily clad woman story, but I do remember him telling me he was there only because he knew Morse code, something he was quite proud of (knowing Morse code, not going to Canada). Then, as I understood, he stayed in Canada because he met Nana here.

  3. By the way, pretty certain that any story about scantily clad women is apocryphal, meant to entertain grandchildren.

  4. Two years ago our community chorus sang “In Flanders Fields” as part of our summer concert. It has a very simple and moving melody, and that, combined with the words, made it very difficult for me to sing. I finally got to where I could get through it in rehearsal, but when it came time for the concert, I lost it. I simply stood there, chin trembling, mopping my eyes and trying to keep from sobbing. I think the thing that made me lose it was seeing my dad, a Vietnam veteran, in the audience.

    It sounds like that at least in Canada an effort is made to make Rememberance Day important. In the US, Veterans’ Day (same day) is, for most people, just another day off, a day for sales in the shops, etc. Although, I have noticed that with our current conflict(s), more reverence is given to veterans, probably to “make up” for how the soldiers who fought in Vietnam were treated.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever heard the lyrical version of the poem, Ellen, just the recited one. It’s amazing how much a simple melody can be emotionally powerful.

      I didn’t realize that Remembrance Day wasn’t given the same respect in the US. I’m a little surprised, given that the United States have a stronger and more active military than Canada does (our armed forces are smaller and more focused on peacekeeping and humanitarian aid). We don’t get the day off here, maybe that’s part of it?

  5. A very moving post — Barbara

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