By Pauline Kerr
John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields, was written during a particularly dark part of the First World War.
On May 3, 1915, he had just buried a dear friend and fellow soldier who had been killed in the Second Battle of Ypres. The poem was first published in December of that year.
Over a century later, it still resounds with us. Anyone who has seen the war cemeteries along the coast of France, Belgium and Holland will understand why.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place …
They really do, you know, and the sight of acres upon acres of flamboyantly beautiful, blood-red flowers, rippling in the constant wind off the North Sea, dotted by endless rows of stark white crosses, is one never to be forgotten.
Whether seen through the eyes of a young military doctor in the First World War who penned scraps of poetry while waiting for the arrival of more wounded, or a young child visiting a war cemetery with her father, a Second World War and Korean War veteran, they etch an indelible mark on one’s soul.
… and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
May is for listening to the singing of birds, not burying friends. McCrae put pen to paper, wondering how larks could still sing and poppies bloom, while death and devastation was all around.
Seasons change. Autumn’s rain-soaked wasteland becomes May’s scene of breathtaking beauty. Poppies grow best on disturbed ground, bursting to life on fields pock-marked by exploding bombs and tank tracks. However, even as the larks sing and poppies bloom, echoes of war can still be heard and seen, if only in one’s mind. The poppies growing amid the crosses serve as a reminder of battles fought and soldiers killed.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow –
Each cross has a name, and a couple of dates – birth and death. The thousands who died were so young, many of them teenagers and in their early 20s. They left behind devastated parents and siblings, sweethearts and friends. Some were married and left young wives to raise children alone.
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Looking at those crosses, one cannot help but imagine a mother, a wife, a child, sitting in the late-day sunlight here at home, thinking about the ones who had died so far from home, who would remain forever young, forever loved.
Tragic losses never go away. The edges grow less sharp with time, and people learn to live with them. But they remain.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
Many have taken up that torch, and many more will. Some fight to protect our freedom and rights by serving in the various branches of the military. Whether a person serves aboard a giant ship, or operates a computer in an office far from any action, their service matters, and we honour them for it.
Some wear other uniforms – police, paramedics and firefighters, some fulltime, and some as volunteers. We honour them as well.
There are those who serve on local committees, who run for public office, who belong to service organizations that make life better for many people, in many ways. Their service makes our small, rural communities what they are – wonderful places in which to live, work and play – places well worth serving and protecting.
If ye break faith with use who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Breaking the faith means failing to honour not only those who fought for our freedom, but the values that led them to serve – service to one’s country and community, dedication in the face of danger, and knowing that qualities like decency, truth and rights are worth the ultimate sacrifice.
We will never forget.