Monday, November 06, 2006

Why a poppy?

From the Canadian Stock Broker (That's right. 'T'is accurate):

Poppy Seeds are Buried Deep

The connection between the poppy we all wear and battlefield deaths was first made during the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, with soldiers remarking that fields which were barren before battle exploded with the blood-red flowers just after the fighting ended.

During the tremendous bombardments of the First World War the chalk soils became rich and interned with lime from all the disturbance, allowing the poppy ‘popaver rhoeas’ to thrive. When the war ended the lime was quickly absorbed, and the poppy began to appear in natural numbers again.

After John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields was published in 1915 the poppy became a popular symbol for soldiers who died in battle.

Three years later an American, Moina Michael, was working in a New York City YMCA canteen when she started wearing a poppy in memory of the millions who died on the battlefield.

During a 1920 visit to the United States a French national, Madame Guerin, learned of the custom. On her return to France she decided to use handmade poppies to raise money for the destitute children in war-torn areas of the country. In November, 1921, the first poppies were freely distributed in Canada.

Thanks to the millions of Canadians who wear flowers each November, the little red plant has never died. And neither have Canadian’s memories for 116,031 of their countrymen who died in battle.

Many people interpret Remembrance Day and the wearing of a poppy many different ways. Likewise, there are many different ways to interpret the meaning behind John McRae's In Flanders Fields.

This is simply my interpretation. Yours may be completely different... and it's not wrong.

McRae was making a plea; A plea to pay attention to the sacrifice of those in the trenches. He believed in what he was doing and, on the day before he wrote his famous poem, McRae had lost one of his closest friends to the fighting. He had written to his mother describing the horrific conditions of the seventeen days of fighting in the second battle of Ypres, an area also known as Flanders. He, along with others, feared they might not be able to hold the line. As he looked at the makeshift graves he was taken by the sudden bursting of poppies across the battlefield.

McRae's plea was, even if those on the front could not continue, others must fill the ranks, particularly because, despite the cause, the lives of his comrades could not be wasted. There must be meaning to their sacrifice and that meant victory, sometime, somehow in the future.

McRae, a Boer War veteran, would go on to witness even worse. The Somme offensive had not yet started.

Remembrance Day is, first and foremost, a simple thing. It is a memorial to those who died fighting. While there may be, in the minds of some, some difficulty with the politics of some of Canada's wars, that isn't what the day is about. It is about the people who, for whatever reason, died fighting in far-off lands. Most of them are interred where they fell or in national graveyards nearby. Very few Canadian serving members, killed in war, were ever repatriated to Canada.

While there is an element of thanks being offered to the veterans of war, most of them will tell you something quite different: they too are paying respect and remembering the dead; their comrades.

The veterans, those who survived our past and present wars, lead us in the event that is Remembrance Day. It is they who bear witness to the sacrifice, the loss, the need to ensure that we never forget those who never came home.

Remembrance Day is not a military event nor a celebration of militarism. In fact, it could be interpreted as exactly the opposite. The militarism belongs to a different class and a different time. The dead belong in our memory.

To you from failing hands we throw
The Torch, be yours to hold it high.

I cannot put myself in John McRae's boots in 1915. I can however understand a feeling which says, "We did our duty. We are done. You must now do yours."

And, it is a duty we must do. Whatever that duty means to you, you must do it, for they did theirs and you cannot apply a wrong or a right to it. They did their duty, as asked of them, and they were killed. The veterans ask only that we never forget that. They speak for their fallen comrades.

We now have 19 and 20 year old veterans living in this country who have seen their comrades die. They speak not just for the people of their expedition; they speak for all Canada's war dead: Those of the Great War; those of the Second World War; those of Korea; those of Afghanistan and those who have died serving on international missions wearing a blue beret.

Perhaps one day our descendants will be able to speak for those who died in war having never had to experience it. We break faith with those who died if we do not make a sincere effort to achieve that goal.

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