On this Remembrance Day, we pause to remember those who represented our country, fought and died in war. And so we remember with the words of the poem, “In Flanders Fields”, written by Canadian soldier and doctor, John McCrae, on the day after the death of his dear friend, Alexis Helmer.
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.
(John McCrae, May 3, 1915)
I was born in the mid 1950’s long after the end of World War 2. By the time I was old enough to ask questions about the war I discovered that the people who served our country in that war did not want to talk about it. The war was over and it was time to begin a new life and try to forget the memories that haunted many people in my father’s generation.
When I was in school, I recall that every year on the day before the Remembrance Day holiday we would have an assembly at school and someone who served in the war would speak to us about the meaning of Remembrance Day and why it is important to remember the human cost of war. None of those guest speakers ever glorified war – they told us that war was a terrible thing to be avoided if at all possible.I remember Remembrance Day as a solemn day to show respect and gratitude for those who had sacrificed their lives that we could live in peace. I heard phrases such as “the war to end all wars” but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered that phrase referred to the First World War, not World War II.Poppy wreaths and wearing a poppy from the first of November until the eleventh was so much a part of my growing up that I didn’t realize that it is a uniquely Canadian and British custom. And, it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned the story of John McCrae and why the poem, In Flanders Fields, was written.
I only know what war is like from what I have read over the years and from the snippets of stories that others have shared with me and for that I am grateful. I do know, from the stories of others, that war is something that alters one’s life forever. This week I have especially remembered someone that I knew long ago who served in World War 2. This man, who I’ll call Joe, was a quiet person who lived a bit in his wife’s shadow. Joe’s wife was an English war bride that Joe met and married while posted overseas. She was bright and outgoing – a very active member of our United Church. Joe accompanied her to all the church activities but he was not very social and seemed a bit of an “odd duck” in many ways. One year in very early Fall I remember hearing that some High School students were doing a special project that involved veterans from World War II. The students’ project was to meet, interview and record some of the stories from veterans so they and their classmates could know something about what it was like to be involved in a war. To my surprise I found out that Joe was one of those interviewed by the students. I don’t know all the details of Joe’s story but I do know that during the war he was captured by enemy troops and was on a transport train headed for a German Prisoner of War Camp. While on the train he found himself beside a German soldier. The German soldier was young, probably about 19 or 20, around the same age as Joe. Joe was a smoker and was yearning for a cigarette and there was something about the other soldier that seemed approachable so in a quiet moment when it seemed that no one would notice he asked the German soldier if he would give him a cigarette. The young German soldier quietly passed him a cigarette and went on his way. It wasn’t until later that Joe learned that this act of kindness was noticed and reported and the young German soldier had immediately been taken off the train and shot for fraternizing with the enemy. Joe was shattered by the news and felt tremendous guilt and a sense of responsibility for the other young man’s death. He carried this with him as a heavy burden. No one, that I know of, from our community of faith knew Joe’s story until he shared it with the students and it became public knowledge. I don’t know for sure but I hope telling his story helped him in some way to reconcile his actions with the inhumanity of war.
We gather this day not to glorify war but to remember. To remember those who’ve lost their lives in war; those forever changed by the experience of war; those who mourn the loss of loved ones who died long ago or in recent conflicts; those who work for peace everywhere in our world and especially for Christ who leads us in the way of peace.
We gather to remember —
“lest we forget”