Every Canadian of a certain generation learned several poems by heart. In my day, this was one of those poems:
In Flanders Fields
BY 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.
So imbued with this poem were the Canadians who made a pilgrimage to the Commonwealth War Graves in Belgium that on tours of the cemeteries the tour guide must answer a persistent question: Where are ‘Flanders fields?’
My dear uncle was still remonstrating, when he arrived with aunt and my folks, some 40 years ago to visit me in London. ‘She said that ‘Flanders fields’ was just a poetic device, that the place doesn’t actually exist!’ Poets, of course, have their own explicit licence to create metaphors, symbols that resonate. In this case, for Canadians anyway, John McCrae’s short poem resonated very movingly indeed.
Today across the nation, and all across the Commonwealth, Remembrance Day is observed. It was changed from ‘Armistice Day’ with the failure of the peace after WWI, as WWII enveloped the planet. The one, or two minute silence is universal, from the cenotaph in London to high streets and shopping centres everywhere to radio broadcasts, at 11am today, the 11th day of the 11th month.
If we remember anything about war, and so many of us do not, surely the most salient must be that peace is the most precious commodity we can imagine. Let the peace continue, so that our children don’t have to change the name of this day again.
Several singers from the Allen Valleys community will be participating in Karl Jenkins’ work, The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, on Saturday the 16th November, 7:30pm at Hexham Abbey. From what I’ve heard of the rehearsal efforts, it’s an incredibly moving piece of contemporary work.