Monday, November 11, 2013

Poppy Day

As today is Veteran's Day, which is known in the civilized world (where they have universal health care like socialist Canada) as Armistice Day. It was founded in 1919 and marked by a minute of silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the moment when in 1918 World War One went silent. In the Commonwealth of English Speaking Nations it is traditional to wear red paper poppies to commemorate the day by remembering the poppy fields of Flanders where the slaughter of the Western Front took place. The poppies were sold to raise money for veterans causes and wearing the poppy was a point of pride in November when I was a child. We remembered.

Nowadays, almost a century after it began most people have forgotten why we get the day off today, but a bunch of generals decided the eleventh of the eleventh etc.. was the proper moment to end the endless slaughter of the war to end all wars. Then they all went to Versailles and signed the official paperwork punishing the Germans for starting it and thus laying the groundwork that would lead inevitably to World War Two, fifty million dead and wounded and more endless destruction and then the nuclear bomb and it's sole use as an instrument of war.

World War One was a horror beyond anything we can imagine. Men stood in mud and water up to their waists, ice and snow in winter, and shot each other. Post traumatic stress disorder wasn't known and men who lost their heads were labeled cowards and tied to a post between the trenches to die at random. Deserters were shot, the wounded had no penicillin, opiates were in short supply and field hospitals resembled butcher shops. Pensions for survivors were unheard of and a whole generation of women missed out on marriage and families. There weren't enough men to go round in peacetime.

From time to time the Generals organized attacks and the men in the trenches went "over the top" and slogged through barbed wire, mud or dust and walked into machine gun fire from the opposing trenches. They died in droves and no one served just one tour of duty. You volunteered or were conscripted and you served until the war ended or you died. This massacre went on for four years.

This endless slaughter produced some amazing art, great stories and later movies by the ton. From the German side you can read or see the immense classic called All Quiet on the Western Front, or a lesser known book which amazed me years ago and is available on Kindle by Walter Bloem, Advance from Mons which tells how the Germans felt as they advanced on Paris in 1914. I enjoy the sarcastic humor of Derek Robinson's novels of the air war on the British side but if you think I am a curmudgeon they may be too much for you.

War poetry is the best. It conveys the utter awfulness and despair of thinking men caught up in a disaster they cannot escape and which they are forced to participate in with all their strength to hold on to life. People like Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke among others. My favorite anthology of World War One poems is not on Kindle. Poems of the First World War: Never Such Innocence (Everyman): Martin Stephen: 9780460873505: Amazon.com: Books You may reasonably wonder why on Veterans Day I think back to a war four generations old and almost forgotten, God knows we've had plenty since. On the first day of the first battle of the Somme in 1916 sixty thousand British troops were killed and wounded. That was the first day of a battle that lasted 141 days, and there were two more battles later in the war over that same ground. Troops were gassed, drowned, blown up and died in ferocious hand to hand fighting. They came home and never did they put bumper stickers on their model Ts "I survived the First Battle of the Somme" or "My son sailed at Jutland." They did the fighting and lived modest lives thereafter. They deserve to be remembered after all this time. They died for freedom and never even asked for a pension for their wounds. If you want to read modern poetry in the same vein you should read Amazon.com: Here, Bullet eBook: Brian Turner: Kindle Store. Here Bullet is profound in the tradition of the War Poets and it's written by an Afghan War veteran with an amazing way with words.

The man who was arguably the greatest of the War Poets died five days before the Armistice, shot down by a machine gun as his company crossed the Sambre Canal. Everyone knew peace was coming and the minute when the fighting was to stop but they didn't stop fighting until that exact eleventh hour...Wilfred Owen wasn't the last to die, that "honor" went to George Lawrence Price a Canadian soldier shot and killed in Belgium at 10:58, two minutes before all guns were laid down for the last time. However to Owen goes the poetry honor while Price's death is marked with a plaque in Belgium. Of all Owen's poems I like this one best to honor all those for whom today is named, before and after the war to end all wars.

Apologia Pro Poemate Meo - In Defence of my Poems, by Wilfred Owen.

"I, too, saw God through mud -

The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.

War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,

And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

 

Merry it was to laugh there -

Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.

For power was on us as we slashed bones bare

Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

 

I, too, have dropped off fear -

Behind the barrage, dead as my platoon,

And sailed my spirit surging, light and clear

Past the entanglement where hopes lay strewn;

 

And witnessed exultation -

Faces that used to curse me, scowl for scowl,

Shine and lift up with passion of oblation,

Seraphic for an hour; though they were foul.

I have made fellowships -

Untold of happy lovers in old song.

For love is not the binding of fair lips

With the soft silk of eyes that look and long,

 

By Joy, whose ribbon slips, -

But wound with war's hard wire whose stakes are strong;

Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;

Knit in the welding of the rifle-thong.

 

I have perceived much beauty

In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;

Heard music in the silentness of duty;

Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

 

Nevertheless, except you share

With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,

Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,

And heaven but as the highway for a shell,

 

You shall not hear their mirth:

You shall not come to think them well content

By any jest of mine. These men are worth

Your tears: You are not worth their merriment."

 

 

 

4 comments:

Bryce Lee said...

In Canada November 11 is now known as Remembrance Day.

IN FLANDERS FIELDS POEM
The World’s Most Famous WAR MEMORIAL POEM
By Lieutenant Colonel 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
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
------
Composed at the battle
front 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, Dr. 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.

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.

------
In Flanders Fields is required memory work for elementary school students in many places in Canada.

McCrae came from Guelph Ontario not too far from where I live.

War continues in all too many shapes and forms. As such Remembrance Day is not just for WWI but for all those who have perished
in wars past and continuing.

In an ironical twist my own mother
was born November 11, 1916.
Before the official Armistice Day was established. Mum died in 2011 at age 94. So shall visit her grave and that of my father later this same day,
before attending the Remembrance Day services at the cenotaph here in Burlington. And yes I proudly wear a red poppy
for some weeks before and after the special day.

Conchscooter said...

I mentioned Armistice Day to a colleague and she looked at me like I had grown two heads. She couldn't even say the word. Which prompted the thought that as usual history slips away and is forgotten. And today flags will sprout all over the Internet and I wanted my page to be a remembrance not a celebration.

Trobairitz said...

Growing up in Canada I remember Nov 11th as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day and I don't remember any sales going on in the retail establishments - everything was closed as a sign of honor and we sold poppies at the school to raise money for the Legion.

I remember participating in parades and listening to the bagpipes as the wreaths were laid. To me they were a more somber affair that what I see today.

People may find this offensive but I feel more sympathy and empathy for those that fought in the older wars (ie, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, et al). They usually had no choice and were drafted and conscripted and war was a different animal back then. Now it seems people willingly sign up to do a job (join the Army, Navy, Marines, et al) and the word hero is thrown around too often and too easily.

David Drouin said...

Thank you for such a heartfelt post about the sacrifices brave men and women made in order for us to live in freedom.

As a teacher, it is getting harder and harder to explain the important significance of Remembrance Day. I had two grandfathers who fought, one whom I never met. My students might have a great-grandparent they never met who went to war.

I see the day changing in the future. I think we should consider the people who helped break down the Iron Curtain as heroes. This was an action of peace that did not have any outright bloodshed.

The NGOs that are working in dangerous situations around the world are working towards peace.

The protesters during the Arab Spring in many nations were/are oriented towards peace.

Peace can come about without violence if all players truly desire a true and lasting peace. Unfortunately, that is a lesson humanity might never learn.

- Dave at Motorcycle Addiction