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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