The impact of John McCrae’s words are felt around the world and today we do remember them. 100 years ago the “war to end all wars” started and lasted four long bloody years. The total death toll in Canada is still undetermined but they finally “settled” on a number about 20 years after. So many dead and so many more missing. In France and Belgium the monuments to those fallen lost soldiers are staggering and so sad. No final resting place for family to come remember but rather the image of ‘no man’s land” strewn with dead and decaying bodies.It’s little wonder that those men that came home from war didn’t talk about it. The scale of what they did and saw must have haunted them. I was told a family story about the sons of a veteran taking up hunting when they were teenagers and how their father was appalled and would have nothing to do with their guns. It’s now hard to remember them intimately as their siblings and spouses are now gone. The children of any are now getting elderly so their personal recollections of their veteran parent and any stories are growing dimmer.
These recollections, that turn the statistical number into a name, are so important and should be recorded. A friend of ours did just that with a self published book of her grandfather’s time in France and Belgium. He survived many years in the trenches and they have his letters, postcards and some photos. What he wrote about personalizes all that you read about in the history books. An acquaintance of ours has his great uncle’s letters from his short time in the first world war. His story doesn’t end as well for he became a runner. The life expectancy of those who took orders up and down the lines was 5 days – he lasted 19.
I don’t have a close personal connection to the first world war but my father was a veteran. He trained during the second world war but got rheumatic fever and was given a medical discharge before he ever saw any action overseas. He belonged to the Legion and every year we stood on main street and watched them parade by. It all seemed so foreign to me as a young child growing up on the prairies but the names on the cenotaph corners stuck in my head.
Ypres, Somme, Vimy, Passendaele. The lush green productive farm land belies the history that took place there. The landscape appears to be pristine but if you look closer you can see the remnants of a war that tore it apart. There are still unexploded shells being dug up in fields and bodies being found in back yard gardens. The trees are strong and relatively young compared to old forest growth. I have only seen a portion of the Western Front but I am quite sure the story is the same farther along and on the Eastern Front. The war tore into the countryside and into the hearts of those all around the world. Our Australian friends just travelled to Gallipieo Turkey to honour their past as we travelled to Vimy France to honour ours. It is difficult to reconcile the peaceful tranquility of the countryside with the destruction that occurred there a century ago.
Standing on the Vimy Memorial makes you proud to be a Canadian and know that the actions of our soldiers helped turn the tide to end the war while standing in the trenches at Vimy Ridge gives you a sense of what it must have been like. In France we received poppies and I wear it with pride and in remembrance of all those that gave the ultimate sacrifice so that we can live a life full of choices and liberties.
Others who lived it wrote far better than I so I will leave you with John McCrae’s full poem as well The “Ode of Remembrance” taken from Laurence Binyon’s poem, “For the Fallen”.
‘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.
For the Fallen
They went with songs to the battle, they were young
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam