At 11:11 am on November 11, 1918, the guns on the Western Front fell silent after four years of nearly continuous combat. World War I would claim the lives of much of a generation and leave parts of Europe (and elsewhere) visibly scarred. It is on this 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I that I’d like to take a moment to remember.
Across the Commonwealth and in other nations around the world, Remembrance Day, Poppy Day, or Armistice Day, is a solemn occasion to remember our past and present conflicts and the men and women who served in our armed forces. The observance grew out of World War I but it has evolved over the years to encompass other conflicts as well. Remembrance Day is similar in concept to Memorial Day or Veterans Day as observed in the United States.
I want to quote two poems that traditionally mark the occasion in my experience. First, John McCrae, a Canadian surgeon that tended to wounded soldiers at Ypres and other battles and who ultimately succumbed to pneumonia before the end of the conflict.
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.
Second, a poem from British-American RCAF Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr. who lost his life in a mid-air collision in the skies over England during 1941. His poem on flight and flying in many ways stands in stark contrast to the deadly combat conditions facing air crews flying and fighting over the English Channel, England, and Europe in those dark days.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Though many of these conflicts are long over, their scars still exist today. I find myself learning, reading, understanding and ultimately doing my best to remember the horror and the sacrifices made on November 11 and on the days in between. It is on this occasion that we remember past conflicts and seek to understand them so that we may never repeat those mistakes of the past.