Commemorating Remembrance Day is never complete without a reading of “In Flanders Fields”. The iconic poem was written by Major John McCrae in 1915 after the death of a friend during the battle of Ypres.
It is a short poem. But the three stanzas pack a great deal of emotional power:
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.
“In Flanders Fields” does not glorify war. Instead, the violence of war is subsumed within imagery of the natural world – poppies, wind, larks, sunrises and sunsets. The place of the fallen is within the larger world and the human community. There is a timeless, moving quality to McCrae’s verses.
The poem makes an appeal to not “break faith with us who die”. The deaths of soldiers on the battlefield will not be in vain if those to whom the torch is thrown take up “our quarrel with the foe.” The proper act of remembrance is to not abandon the cause for which they fought.
When Major McCrae composed “In Flanders Fields”, he was a military doctor and second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. McCrae was, like my grandfather who also fought at Ypres, one of “us” – a Canadian. He fought on “our” side – with Britain and her allies in the First World War. “In Flanders Fields” was therefore, “our” poem, inspired by our soldiers, our sacrifice. It was homage to our loss and our grief.
At least I have always considered it that way – until my travels this past summer brought me another perspective.
Hodonin is a small city in southeastern Czech Republic. While there, I visited their local museum. A sign on the street drew me in. It was advertising an exhibit entitled, “1914 – 1918”. Inside the museum was a large room with pictures and artifacts such as uniforms, letters and documents. The exhibit signs were in Czech without any translations available. I made sense as best I could of the photos and artifacts on display. But I was unable to decipher the descriptions and interpretations given to them by the museum curators.
One exhibit had prominence. It was larger and different in nature from the glass display cases in the rest of the room. This exhibit spilled out onto the floor of the exhibit hall. It was filled with representations of poppies on a green cloth with a photo of a cemetery as a backdrop.
The signage said all that needed to be said. It was clearly, even to my eyes, a Czech translation of “In Flanders Fields”.
As I absorbed this exhibit, a realization reached out to me across the barriers of distance, time and language. Other people in another country were also laying claim to “In Flanders Fields”. It expressed for them their loss and grief in the First World War just as it did for Canadians. McCrae’s words captured the humanity of their fallen grandfathers and forbearers just as it did for ours. The timeless power of this iconic poem was greater than I had imagined. I could not any longer consider “In Flanders Fields” exclusively “ours”.
In 1915, Hodonin was a town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their soldiers fought on the side of Germany.
They were the foe with whom McCrae exhorted us to take up our quarrel. Yet, their descendants now find solace and meaning in the same words. It made me ask, “Just who was our foe?” 100 years later, “What was the quarrel?” The First World War and its aftermath, the Second World War, gives some urgency to understanding the answers.
What endures a century later is that both sides in that conflict share sadness and remembrances over their great loss in human lives. This realization suggests to me “our quarrel with the foe” is something other than simply identifying enemies across a no man’s land on a battlefield. The foe is more elusive and difficult to identify than that. The foe is something that has to be common to both sides.
McCrae’s profound and beautiful imagery still speaks to us. We will not break faith with “us who die”, when we recognize the common humanity we share in our opponents.
Perhaps “In Flanders Fields” still even has the power to move us. We will hold high the torch tossed to us by failing hands whenever we are able to resolve our conflicts without reaching for a gun.
Then they can sleep in Flanders fields.