Sunday, November 11, 2012

Remembrance Day 2012

Not Forgetting

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada; it's called Veterans Day in the United States; and Armistice Day in many other nations of the world. The name is not as important as why the day is remembered. It is not a celebration but serves as a reminder of the horrors of war, and the human cost of its sacrifices. In Canada, many persons, including myself, wear red poppies on our lapels; the red poppies serve as a signifier:
The red remembrance poppy has become a familiar emblem of Remembrance Day due to the poem "In Flanders Fields". These poppies bloomed across some of the worst battlefields of Flanders in World War I, their brilliant red colour an appropriate symbol for the blood spilled in the war.
One site dedicated to Flanders Fields gives some details, the inspiration if you will, to the world's most-famous war poem; it was composed by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae [1872-1918], a physician and poet, at the battlefront on May 3, 1915, during the second battle of Ypres, Belgium:
On May 2, 1915, John McCrae’s close friend and former student Alexis Helmer was killed by a German shell. That evening, in the absence of a Chaplain, John McCrae recited from memory a few passages from the Church of England’s “Order of the Burial of the Dead”. For security reasons Helmer’s burial in Essex Farm Cemetery was performed in complete darkness.
The next day, May 3, 1915, Sergeant-Major Cyril Allinson was delivering mail. McCrae was sitting at the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station beside the YserCanal, just a few hundred yards north of Ypres, Belgium.
Photo © 2006-2009
In Flanders

As John McCrae was writing his In Flanders Fields poem, Allinson silently watched and later recalled, “His face was very tired but calm as he wrote. He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer's grave."
 Within moments, John McCrae had completed the “In Flanders Fields” poem and when he was done, without a word, McCrae took his mail and handed the poem to Allinson.
Allinson was deeply moved:
“The (Flanders Fields) poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene."
The poetry should not diminish the horror of the symbol. I remember reciting the poem with my classmates in the 1960s, and even as an eight-year-old I felt the tragedy of the poetic language. It gives modern meaning to "human sacrifice."  The poem speaks about the horrors of war and stands as an indictment of it; despite the "heroic" language of the third stanza, which can be used as propaganda in support of war, it needs to be put into context as to the sum total of what Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae viewed and felt at that moment. It might help if you read the poem carefully.

In Flanders Fields

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.

Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

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