Remembrance Day

If you’re a Canadian travelling in Chicago, wearing your poppy is one sure way to meet people. Here on business, I’ve been struck by the number of Americans (who mark Veterans Day today) who have stopped to enquire about the poppy worn on my left lapel.

Those of us who grew up in Canada learned and recited, as school children, the poetry of a Canadian physician who served in both the Boer War and The Great War that subsequently became known as World War I. John McRae was a pathologist, professor and poet who graduated from the University of Toronto and interned at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He elected to serve as a gunner and medical officer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

While we, and people in other countries, pause to pay respect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month of the year,  it was on a Spring day – May 3, 1915 – that Lieutenant Colonel John McRae articulated his experience in a poppy-strewn hell.

McRae wrote of his time at Ypres, “I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days … Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done.”

Under cover of darkness on May 2, 1915, McRae presided over the burial of Alexis Helmer, a friend and former student who died during the Second Battle of Ypres. Word is that, perched in the rear of an ambulance just north of Ypres, Belgium the day after Helmer’s burial, McRae wrote In Flanders Fields in the space of roughly a quarter of an hour.

In the months ahead, the poem made its way to the UK, where it was initially published on December 8, 1915 in Punch magazine. Following publication, In Flanders Fields gained rapid exposure and immense favour. McRae died of pneumonia less than four years later, when he was 45 years young and serving in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. Today, a century after McRae penned his poem, we will pause to remember.

November in Canada marks the Royal Canadian Legion’s Poppy Campaign, with volunteers and retailers making the vivid lapel pins available by donation across the country. Such poppies first appeared in Canada in 1922 and, until 1996, were produced by disabled veterans who were able to derive modest incomes from the work while also contributing to Canadians’ sense of remembrance. Today, those loonies, toonies and larger demoninations we tuck into a collection box in exchange for a lapel pin continue to be directed to veterans, through services provided by the Legion. Those of us who turn out in increasing numbers for 11:00 a.m. cenotaph services on November 11th typically unpin our poppies after the ceremonies, and gently place them upon a memorial. I won’t be with my family at this year’s service, but I remember, and will pause and pay respect at 11:00 a.m.

People in other countries also mark November 11th, for it was at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 that the Allies’ and Germans’ armistice saw an end to what is now known as World War I. In England this year, there is a compelling art installation outside the Tower of London, with 888,246 hand made ceramic poppies representing the individual Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives in The Great War that began a hundred years ago.

This year, Canadians pinned our poppies fresh on the heels of the loss of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a reservist with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.  Nathan Cirillo was shot and killed last month while serving as Honorary Guard at Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Today, many Canadians are wearing our poppies with our customary respect – and with fresh tears for this most recent horrible, unnecessary loss.

IN FLANDERS FIELDS

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.

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.

McRae, Dr. John
John McRae (photographer not identified)
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