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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembering 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.


I memorized the poem, many years ago, as I'm sure you did. It is a ritual of Canadian childhood. While achieving acclaim in America, it never become indelible in the American mind. Through out the Empire and Commonwealth it achieved iconic status, spurring the creation of the poppy campaigns seen every November. The poppy somewhat confuses Americans. For the Chinese it has other connotations

The reading of the poem, the solemn viewing of grainy film, the occasional visit by an aged veteran - in my case a Canadian participant in the Great Escape - is part of the catechism of Canadianism. Why did they die? For freedom. Why did they suffer? For Canada.

It was all a very earnest attempt, by ernest teachers, to impart, as best they could, the nature of a war few of them experienced. They - unlike most of us - knew someone who was there. An uncle, a father, a grandfather. The names chiselled on walls that were only names to us, were to them family names and off-tint photographs.

To most of us, the students, the ritual, however much we wanted to feel what we were suppose to feel, was largely empty. There can be no places further apart, in mind and feel, than Flanders in 1917 and Canada today. We were much too lucky to understand. There was no personal connection. The odd student had escaped from a far away war-torn country, but was often too young to recall or understand. Most our families had not fought in the war. Our ancestors were buried elsewhere and for other reasons.

The war became real to me, as far as it can to someone like me, when attending the University of Toronto. It was the same school that John McCrae attended, more than a century before me. His name is inscribed near Soldiers' Tower. The names that had been inscribed at my elementary school were names from along ago, from people who were adults. They were two steps removed.

The names at Soldiers' Tower had been my age. They had walked the same halls. The difference between myself and them was only the accident of time. Most of the names were those of officers. In addition to all the burdens of war, these early twenty-somethings had the burdens of command. Imagine yourself at that age, trying not only to survive but to lead others into life and death. Only chance separated myself and them, as it had separated the survivors and those on the wall.

For all our secularism, and professed multiculturalism, we are still at root a Christian country. Except in the very early years of Canada there has always been, at least in English Canada, a fairly strict separation of church and state. The rhythms of our culture, as of most Western literature and art, however are Christian.

When the word sacrifice is used in remembrance ceremonies its origin, and echo, is Christian. It is Christ on the Cross. Just as He suffered for us, they the soldiers suffered for us. To the believer, then, November 11th has a double meaning, as it would have to those who first marked Armistice Day nine decades ago. Even a comparatively secular contemporary writer, Rudyard Kipling, infused his short short The Gardener with Christian allusion and allegory.

For good, and ill, Christianity is no longer the living religion it was then, or even thirty or forty years ago. It is seen today as a weekend hobby, resorted to in times of crisis, and then pushed to back of mind. Little, arguably nothing, has come to replace that living force in our culture. David Warren alluded to this in a recent column on Faith and Freedom. You can deny, as I do, that freedom requires faith. It does require, however, some sort of system of belief and value. A nation driven by whim and will is not a nation that will long be free. The Founders of both Canada and America understood this fact. They deferred, to a greater or lesser extent, to religion to provide that moral backbone for society.

While the message of sacrifice lingers in modern Canadian culture, the existence of evil is denied. There is no evil, we are told, only misunderstanding and reaction to suffering. This is why Remembrance Day has become only a ritual. Its meaning is lost, not only because of time, but because the spirit of that age is gone.

They who built the Cenotaphs and Soldiers' Towers believed in suffering, in redemption and in evil. Re-read the poem above, that last jarring stanza. "Take up our quarrel with the foe." The message delivered by those earnest school teachers is the pointlessness of war. That is not, however, what John McCrae believed. Like most of his generation, like most of those thousands of Canadians who lie buried with him in northwestern Europe, they believed in evil. More than this, they believed they fought for something good and against something evil. War was horrible, yes, but it was sometimes necessary to fight evil. 

We all die, some of us die in great pain. From disease, from famine and from natural disaster. What separates death from natural causes, however horrific, and war is morality. War is a product of human thought and action, and so can and must be judged morally. That is why we remember and must, because of the moral dimension of war. We do not honour suffering for its own sake, we honour it because of what they sought to preserve. Let me close by quoting another poem, one that would have been familiar to John McCrae and his fellow officers:

Then out spake brave Horatius,

The Captain of the Gate:

"To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers,

And the temples of his gods,


And for the tender mother

Who dandled him to rest,

And for the wife who nurses

His baby at her breast,

And for the holy maidens

Who feed the eternal flame,

To save them from false Sextus

That wrought the deed of shame?"

It's from Macaulay's The Lays of Ancient Rome. Churchill memorized the poem while at Harrow. It was a standard text for generations of schoolboys. It faded from the curriculum in the years after the First World War. Macaulay was a Christian memorializing the feats of Roman pagans. While their creeds separated the stoical Romans from Victorian Englishmen, the themes of honour, duty, family and values worth fighting for crossed that divide. That we modern Canadians cannot understand Macaulay, and cannot understand that last stanza of In Flanders Field, is the unacknowledged tragedy of the last century. 

The torch; be yours to hold it high.


Posted by Richard Anderson on November 11, 2010 | Permalink


Very interesting post.


Posted by: chris | 2010-11-11 10:56:20 AM

Excellent post!

Posted by: Alain | 2010-11-11 11:24:25 AM

A post above.

Posted by: Agha Ali Arkhan | 2010-11-11 3:34:23 PM

Remember that they died for nothing.

Socialism rules Canada. Even so-called Conservatives dip into the trough.

Real patriots will not defend Canada, but destroy it.

Posted by: AB Patriot | 2010-11-11 11:53:26 PM

The sad fact is that most Canadians only give a darn about our armed forces on certain national holidays. On these days, we give lip service to those who serve but do we really mean it? What do we do for the Canadian forces on the other days of the year? With the exception of the "Highway of Heros". We have a military of only about 90,000 personnel for a country of almost 33 million. Yet, we have equipment that is falling apart and our forces in Afghanistan have to rely on the Americans for so many support elements. The sad truth is that Canadian forces cannot be deployed independent of American assistance. Sadly, this is not a new problem. In the CBC archives online, there is a report from 1985 where a reporter is pointing out the massive equipment problems that existed with Canadian forces deployed in western europe. Its especially embrassing because the Canadian forces deployed to northern Germany were supposed to represent the tip of the Canadian spear. Its amazing! We will spend up the wazoo to make Quebec happy! God forbid, that we ever really cut a social program!The sad fact is that too many Canadians want our armed forces to just be a token element. We don't want to increase their numbers or seriously update their technology. We want a military as a way to show that we are independent of the U.S. However, we never give them the means to conduct independent operations. Its like we just want a showpiece military that both can be used for limited "peacekeeping operations" and be used to push certain liberal social agendas(ex: women in combat, also the push for the military recruiters to set quotas as to what percentage of recruits are of particular racial or sexual groups). Meanwhile, we figure that we are safe as long as the large American military is nearby. This shouldn't be how it works. An independent Canada must have a well-trained and equipped force that can protect the nation without outside help. A nation of 33 million should have a far better equipped and probably larger military. We can't truly be independent of the U.S. if we have to have the U.S. pentagon on speed dial when our country is threatened.

Posted by: Elmer | 2010-11-12 6:51:29 PM

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