Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lest We Forget

PoppyLike many Canadians and members of other Commonwealth Countries I have been wearing a stylized poppy on my lapel the past few days. Dr Palermi, my Italian dentist, asked me on Friday what it meant. Was it for some sort of "festa" or celebration, he asked. I'm sure my explanation in bad Italian left him as perplexed as when he asked the question. But then I began to think - why have I worn a poppy this time of year for almost as long as I can remember? What does it mean? Or perhaps more accurately does it still mean anything?

I would probably have been 4 or 5 when I wore my first poppy and stood for two minutes of silence with the rest of my classmates to remember the war dead. Back then World War II was still a recent event - I had friends who had lost relatives in the combat, my uncle had served overseas, we had people in our neighbourhood who had come to Canada after their homeland and families had been devastated by the war. Unfortunately we also picked on the few German kids in the area because they had "killed" Harry Simmons' uncle. It was history but it was recent history. So when we stood, uncommonly quiet, in school assembly it had a resonance that we may not have understood completely but felt none the less.

I recall that in those early years there were a few veterans of the Boer War at the Cenotaph in Toronto. As time passed they had joined their fallen comrades as did veterans from World War I - today there is only one known Canadian veteran of the Great War, John Babcock who is now 108. And today at commemorations throughout Canada and the world, the men and women who honour friends and colleagues who died in World War II and even the Korean War are becoming fewer and fewer.

So perhaps for many Canadians the reason for remembering is fading from memory. But sadly battles continue, though not on the scale of those "Great Wars," and we still have reasons to remember. I wondered earlier if there was still a meaning in me wearing a poppy and taking two minutes out of my very busy schedules to remember the fallen of distant wars? I hear of the death of a former young colleague’s husband in Afghanistan, I see footage of the cortege of another Canadian peacekeeper making its way from Trenton along the 401, I witness the mental suffering of friends who have served in our military abroad – and I see that these events have as much resonance for me today as those of 50-odd years ago. How can I not do something as simple as wearing a poppy to remember?

But why a poppy and what does it signify? The poppy's significance comes from Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields. McCrae, an army physician who died in January 1918 at a field hospital, wrote the poem during a lull in the fighting in May of 1915. The poppies grew wild in the battlefields and cemeteries around Flanders. They soon came to represent both the blood shed in war and the sacrifice made by the men and women who served. And tradition says that it is worn on the left close to the heart.

When I got a little older and joined the school choir I remember we sang McCrae's poem at school assembly every November 11. I don't believe this is the version we sang - I know there are several - but I found this rendition particularly moving.

The picture at the right is the cover of a marvellous book written by Heather Patterson and illustrated by Ron Lightburn. Ms Patterson wrote it because in her own words: For several years I had been aware that in Canada there was a need to answer young children’s questions like: “Why is that man selling those red things?” Why is everyone wearing a red flower?”, etc. There were no books for younger children about the poppy and Remembrance day and the origins of both in Canada. She dedicates the book to her granddaughter with the hope that “she blossom like a bright poppy in a peaceful world.”

November 11 - Remembrance Day


Anonymous said...

Thank you for remembering. This is a very meaningful day for me as well. My father was MIA for 24 hrs during WWII - he was a tail gunner in the RCAF. I think of what my Mother went through as a young teen bride thinking she was widowed.
I will be placing a flag on my GF's grave today.

sageweb said...

Wow you just schooled me on a day I had no idea about...being the typical American (US)...I did not know about remembrance day. Funny thing it is on my calendar.

Sling said...

That was beautiful Will.
I just got back from watching our little parade here in O-Town.
Maybe someday,there will be a generation that hasn't been touched by war.In the meantime,.'Lest we forget'.

more cowbell said...

It still means something. Thanks for remembering.

evilganome said...

I remember wearing those poppies when I was a kid. I think they started to fall out of favor during Viet Nam here in the states.

My Grandfather served in the Canadian forces in WWI and rarely spoke about the war. Only saying that war was a terrible thing.

In WWII most of my uncles served overseas. With the war in Iraq going on, I think Veteran's Day is beginning to have some significance again other than a day for stores to have sales.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for this, and for sending me back to that amazing poem.

In Flanders Fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses row on row,

So lovely, so sad.

SubtleKnife said...

Sorry to be so flippant, but are you aware of this quote from the Blackadder series set in the Great War?

"The blood, the noise, the endless poetry..."

I was reminded of this last Saturday on a very good Dutch radio show that has a book review section. Apparently someone (I think a Belgian) has collected war poetry from that era from all over and published it bilingually, one side in the original language, the other in translation (I presume into Dutch).

My country was neutral during that war, but we commemorate all the fallen, civilian and military, of wars and peacekeeping projects etc. on the eve of Liberation Day. So our two minutes' silence fall at 8PM on May 4th.

Realisation: My grandparents were all born after WWI.

Ron said...

Thank you for your kind comments about our book.

Ron Lightburn