Today, 11 November 2008, is the 90th anniversary of the conclusion of World War I. The conflict, sometimes called “the Great War”, resulted in the deaths of over 20 million people—about 9.7 million of them military personnel and about 10 million of them civilians. An additional 21 million people were wounded.
November 11th is now commemorated as Veterans Day in the United States, Remembrance Day in Canada, and Armistice Day in much of the rest of the world. Initially, the day honored only those who served in WWI; after WWII (unfortunately, the First World War was not, in fact, “the war to end all wars”) it was expanded to cover all veterans. Today there are approximately 25 million veterans in the United States. In their honor, I would like to observe a Canadian tradition; each year they mark Remembrance Day with readings of John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields.”
Lt. Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian physician who served in World War I and wrote the following poem on 3 May 1915, after he witnessed the gruesome death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, the day before. First published on December 7 of that year in Punch magazine, the poem is extremely well known in Canada; in addition to being read there each year on Remembrance Day the first of it’s three stanzas is on the Canadian $10 bill.
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.
McCrae died on 28 January 1918 of pneumonia and meningitis that he contracted while commanding the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne. He was buried with full honors at the Wimereaux Cemetery, located a few miles from his last post.
War is hell, as one veteran very truly put it. If you know a veteran, or if you just encounter one today, thank him or her; and remember that this need not only be done on November 11th. And if you are a veteran reading this: thanks.