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Armistice Day

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.

              –John McCrae (1872 – 1918)

 

We moved to England in 1954.  The effects of the Second World War were still very much in evidence:  There were bomb craters scattered throughout London;  many of my teachers had fought in the war and had stories to tell about the experiences;  there were still many wounded men to be seen on the streets; and a great deal of popular fiction depended on its characters’ experiences in “The War.” Terrible as it was though, the Second World War seemed to carry an aura of adventure and great deeds with it.  This was not true of World War One. 

The First World War was an infinitely tired, sad War.  Fourty years after it ended large numbers of vetrans were still alive.  And Armistice day was their moment.  The veterans would wear red paper poppies in their buttonholes and march in a solemn, quiet parade.  At 11:00 AM the whole city would come to a full stop for two minutes of silence to commemorate the moment when the Armistice came into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  The moment of silence wasn’t just a token to be observed in public.  It was solemly observed in our classrooms at St. Paul’s.  It was solemly observed in the streets and in the stores.  Nobody moved, nobody made any noise.

The sadness of that day and that moment still resonates with me.

7 Responses to “Armistice Day”

  1. Melinda says:

    I would be very interested if you would explain your
    view of WWI as an ” infinitely sad, tired War”, in contrast to WWII. I have some ideas, but would like to hear yours.

    The “Flanders fields” poem is very beautiful, and one I learned in school. I don’t suppose such evocative and timeless poems exist for more recent (post WWII) wars. which are viewed with much more cynicism. Is there a classic WWII poem? I remember some good songs…White Cliffs of Dover, When Johnny Comes Marching Home…

  2. Bill says:

    I would hate to try to defend one war as being somehow less bad than another. Individuals have “good wars” but the wars themselves are all frightful events that destroy people’s lives and property.

    Having said that, Britain lost 942,000 dead in WW I and 382,000 in WW II, and that was from a smaller population. Total casualties in WW I were 8% of the population, mostly young men.

    Even so, my perceptions may well be colored by my place in time. If I’d been in London in 1928, my sense of WW I might have been very different. By 1954 the participants in the First War were older and sadder people.

    One could also look at the causes of the wars. The assasination of an Austrian Archduke was less of a reason to tear Europe apart than Germany’s treatment of the Jews and German expansionism. It’s easier to feel good about a war if you think it accomplished something.

  3. Tim says:

    It appears that McCrae’s poem is eerily autobiographical: he died before the War ended. Apparently he was not only a poet, but a physician, serving in a field hospital. In January 1918, he caught pneumonia and died.

    As for more recent poems about wars, I’d say they’re probably subject to the predominant medium of the times. How about Country Joe and the Fish:

    “Well, come on mothers throughout the land,
    Pack your boys off to Vietnam.
    Come on fathers, don’t hesitate,
    Send ’em off before it’s too late.
    Be the first one on your block
    To have your boy come home in a box.

    And it’s one, two, three
    What are we fighting for ?
    Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
    Next stop is Vietnam.
    And it’s five, six, seven,
    Open up the pearly gates,
    Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
    Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.”

    It seems to me like we’re beyond the sort of post-modern “ha ha” protests of the yippies into some sort of weird TV world, where self-conscious protests get further self-reflection from the media.

    For current art dealing with our response to war, I’d suggest considering the TV series Lost as a pretty obvious metaphor for America’s inability to deal with disaster and reality — the whole show is premised on a plane crash seemingly without reason (see: They hate our freedom? We’ve got troops in the wrong countries in the Middle East? They’re just religious zealots?) and how a broad swath of (mostly) western-looking people deal with totally new circumstances. Every once in a while one of them inexplicably disappears (see: rendition) and occasionally returns. They can’t tell friend from foe. And yet, generally, they seem to deny the terror of their circumstances and go about their daily lives: playing golf, planting gardens, etc.

    If art’s a reflection of a broad societal/cultural psyche (or maybe in our case psychosis), television’s our medium. And yet, we’re clearly marching into the Internet age, where terrorists are free to post beheadings on YouTube while we’re busy uploading videos of people dropping Mentos into Diet Coke bottles.

  4. Bill says:

    Pigtail

    When all the women in the transport
    had their heads shaved
    four workmen with brooms made of birch
    twigs
    swept up
    and gathered up the hair

    Behind clean glass
    the stiff hair lies
    of those suffocated in gas chambers
    there are pins and side combs
    in this hair

    The hair is not shot through with light
    is not parted by the breeze
    is not touched by any hand
    or rain or lips

    In huge chests
    clouds of dry hair
    of those suffocated
    and a faded plait
    a pigtail with a ribbon
    pulled at school
    by naughty boys.

    –Tadeusz Rozewicz

    I admit that I cannot think of a canonical poem for the Second World War. What comes to mind are movies (The Dam Busters, The Bridge on the River Kwai), songs (We’ll Meet Again, and the ones that Melinda mentioned), radio programs (Edward Murrow, Churchill’s speeches) and books (The Cruel Sea, South Pacific, and a whole genre of post-war fiction). This seems to confirm Tim’s point about the media dictating the mode of expression.

    Rozewicz’s poem seems to me to capture the pathos of war as well as anything that I know. The strains of patriotism that you still see in Flanders Field are utterly missing. This is a poem about the horror of what is and the loss of what could have been.

  5. margaret bean says:

    I suppose one can characterize some wars as sadder than others, even though for each dead or wounded soldier it is ultimately dreadful. For the English and Germans the First World War was, I think, made especially awful by trench and gas warfare and by the shock of its arrival and the sudden great slaughter of young men. And afterwards, the incredible flu epidemic!

    I remember much that Bill does about London -hoardings, huge holes where bombs had hit, rationing . Do also remember a sense that the English had through their suffering become as one.

    My most first terrible sense of the Second World War came, first when young friends were lost (Allan Waite, aged twenty, shot in the water during a Pacific Marine landing – a companaion lived to report this-and Bill Floyd lost in Italy in the Ski Troops (decorated for his faithfulness to his men). As for the effect of bombing, I was most overwhelmed by a 1957 day in Hamburg, a city destroyed, horribly and finally in a single bombing raid – desolate people in the streets and a flattened, grey landscape of almost unimaginable ruin caused by a firestrorm.

  6. Amanda says:

    It’s interesting, I think it was the period between the two wars where poetry became much less of a mainstream medium. Novels perhaps taking poetry’s place? Perhaps printing become less expensive during that time and longer works could be brought to the masses? I wonder how much the economics of media plays into in dictating the mode of expression.

    I add to the world war I poems….

    Dulce Et Decorum Est

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

    GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    Wilfred Owen

  7. barbara says:

    I wonder if war isn’t simply a natural occurence to release tremendous pressure within humankind, rather like Krakatoa, Mt.St Helens, tsunamis.

    Introspection, poetry, art,music are born from disaster like aspens from ash and poppies from dust.

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