The armistice that ended battlefield hostilities during World War I started at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month in 1918. Here in Canada wearing a Red Poppy on the left lapel, the one closest to the heart, is a tradition we use to mark this event.
Though now a full century after the beginning of the Great War, government and financial institutions are the only ones to actually take the day off, November 11th is still a National Holiday here called Remembrance Day.
In the United States November 11th is also celebrated as Veteran’s Day.
Now you can talk to me about the pointlessness of war. How violence is not the answer. Or how it is wrong for well-off, well-fed, middle-aged (mostly) white men to send our youth off to fight their battles for them; and on 364 days of the year I’ll probably agree with a lot of what you have to say.
But just not today, alright? Today, November 11th we pay our respects to those who served in all wars, and especially to those who were lost, at home and abroad.
Speaking to younger people it saddens me to find that so few know how this tradition started.
It’s a fascinating story that stems from one of the most iconic pieces of Canadian literature ever written. I don’t know if they still teach it in schools today but the poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was taught to every child of my generation. We memorized and recited it every year in grade school.
In fact this poem is such an ingrained part of Canadian heritage that until 2013 when we switched to polymer money, an excerpt from the poem was included on the back of our ten dollar bill.
McCrae who was born in Guelph Ontario, was a 41-year-old doctor serving with the Canadian artillary during the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium.
On May 2nd, 1915 during a particularly brutal offensive by the Germans, McCrae witnessed the death of Alexis Helmer, a 22-year-old friend and former student of his from his teaching days at McGill University in Montreal.
Legend has it that during a short break in the hellish battle, McCrae and Helmer were having a smoke away from the trenches. Helmer was exhuberently telling McCrae about his plans for after the war, and how he hoped to marry his sweetheart when he got back home.
A few minutes later as they tossed aside their cigarette butts and went their seperate ways back to their posts, McCrae heard that unmistakable whistling sound of an incoming mortar shell. The nearby explosion rocked him and he turned to see if Helmer was alright, only to discover that the young man had sustained a direct hit; his body was blown to pieces.
The following day after presiding over his friend’s funeral and burying what remains could be collected, McCrae took a solitary stroll to a remote corner of their makeshift cemetary. Alone with his thoughts as he looked out over a field of poppies that swayed in the breeze, he was seen scribbling intently in his notepad.
This is what he wrote:
Apparently McCrae was not happy with the poem, or perhaps it was just the sense of overwhelming futility of it all. Whatever the reason, he tore the page out of his notebook, crumpled it up and discarded it. It was picked up by someone who had been watching him and forwarded on to a military journal where it was published. It gradually gained in popularity and became one of the most famous war poems of all time.
Though John McCrae didn’t make it home from the war either, his words live on. Through his poem poppies became a symbol that is still used to this day as a way to remember and pay tribute to those who served and sacrificed in that and all subsequent wars.
Here in Canada the yearly Poppy Campaign is organized by the Royal Canadian Legion. In late October veterans don their uniforms and fan out across the country in shopping malls and other places where people go in large numbers. They stand quietly with their boxes of poppies and tin can to collect donations. The money raised is used to help provide anything not covered by government-funded veteran’s services and to offer additional assistance to the families of those who have fallen.
There is no specific price. For each Poppy you take you can give as much or as little as you can afford. But if you can and haven’t done so yet please take a poppy and give back a little something to those who have given so much.
And if your budget doesn’t allow for it or you simply don’t want to wear a poppy then I offer this advice; if you cross paths with a veteran this week take a moment out of your busy day to offer a simple handshake and a heartfelt, “Thank you for your service.”
We may not always agree with the reasons why we go to war, but those who serve their country and willingly put themselves in harms way for us deserve our respect, our appreciation, and on at least one day a year a little recognition for their dedication.