This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Ironically, it was then referred to as “the war to end all wars.”
Sadly, it was not to be.
Remembrance Day, November 11, marks the end of that war in 1918, when the guns ceased firing and silence fell over the Western Front. The Armistice was signed at the 11th-hour of the 11th-day of the 11th-month of 1918.
For a great many of us, relating to all of this is rather difficult. Many don't understand Remembrance Day at all. Yet, for an older generation, the memories of the war years are not so distant.
In reality, it isn’t necessary to have war memories to understand what Remembrance Day is all about. It’s simply a day for all Canadians to pay private or public tribute to those who fought and died in war so that we could be free today. Of course, “free” is the only way of life that younger generations have ever known, so it’s understandable that they wouldn’t have gained much of a perspective. But the point is that they didn’t have to go off to war and fight for their freedom because other Canadians did so in the past.
Personally, I like to have my own little Remembrance Day service in my mind. I think about the horrible thing that war is, and was, and could be again. I quietly thank those who went before and fought and sometimes died for our freedom. It makes me very sad to think of them, but I am very grateful.
In the past, I don’t remember seeing a lot of images of the First World War. But the observance of the 100th anniversary has produced some quite fascinating TV documentaries and tributes relating to this event. Many of the pictures are painful to watch — trench-warfare being such an ugly scenario. But, then, there is no pretty war, is there?
Imagery in a great poem
One of the most memorable poems I’ve ever read is In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. Even those of us who are not great lovers of poetry are struck by the vivid images contained in McCrae’s description of the aftermath of a terrible First World War battle. Perhaps you’re familiar with the circumstances of the poem’s origin. However, if like me, you are not, here’s the story as described in a book called Welcome to Flanders Fields, by Daniel Dancocks.
As a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Major John McCrae, who had joined the McGill faculty in 1900 after graduating from the University of Toronto, had spent many days treating injured men — Canadians, British, Indians, French and Germans — during the Battle of Ypres. McCrae later wrote of the harrowing ordeal: “At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, I would have said that it could not be done.”
One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend, Lieut. Alex Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on May 2, 1915. He was buried the next day in a small cemetery near McCrae’s quarters. Later, McCrae sat quietly, deep in thought, overlooking this ugly scene of war and death and vented his anguish by composing a poem. No stranger to writing, he had already authored several medical texts and had also dabbled in poetry.
In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches in that part of Europe, and he spent about 20 minutes of precious rest-time scribbling 15 lines of verse in a notebook.
A young soldier, Cyril Allinson, was delivering mail that day and stopped by while McCrae was writing. After giving McCrae his mail, Allinson asked to see the poem and was deeply moved by what he read. Years later, he recalled: “The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us. The Major used the word ‘blow’ in that line because the poppies actually were blowing in the morning breeze. At the time, it never occurred to me that someday this poem would be published.”
The fact is that it almost wasn’t published. McCrae was dissatisfied with it and threw it away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. The London-based Spectator rejected it, but Punch published it in December of 1915.
Down through the generations, we’ve all learned this poem in school for Remembrance Day, but unlike some fleeting school experiences, this is one that always stays with you. And so it should, as a constant reminder of the sacrifice made long ago by others in the cause of our freedom today.
In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae
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
Scare 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.