9 November 2018
It is one hundred years since the end of the First World War. There are many heart-lurching reminders — a poem, a war memorial, a piece of music. If you have read and been touched by the letters of men in their teens or twenties, from POW camps or recovering in hospital before being sent back to the hell of the trenches, you can only marvel at the courage of these young soldiers.
The British have been accused of being obsessed by both wars. I find the loss of 700,000 of our men in the first war alone, an excuse for obsession. “Lest we forget” are words to engrave on our hearts, not only on Memorials.
The Resurrection of the Soldiers (1928-29) by Sir Stanley Spencer
You are bound to have been asked to buy a poppy, possibly from a tray, carried by an upright old soldier or a comely young reservist, standing outside Waitrose or on a street corner. (Bye-laws prevent you shaking your tin and shouting as I found to my cost some years ago.) Thousands of ex-service people volunteer to raise funds every year in aid of The Poppy Appeal. This was inspired by Colonel John McCrae, a distinguished Canadian physician. He it was who wrote the poem In Flanders Field. After the second battle of Ypres in 1915 where he was in charge of a First Aid post; his friend, who was nearby, was blown up in front of his eyes. The poem was written on a page torn from his despatch book and sent to Punch magazine to be published anonymously.
The poppy of the poem, described as the flower of remembrance, quickly became emblematic of the slaughter of the battlefields. To this day the month of November sees “Installations” made with poppies, light shows and hundreds of thousands of the red paper or silk flowers are sold to the public for the benefit of the British Legion. This organisation provides help for ex-servicemen and women, their families & dependents.
On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the Armistice was signed to end the First World War.
The Queen always attends a Festival of Remembrance organised by the Legion at the Royal Albert Hall on the second Sunday of November. On the eleventh itself she, and other members of the royal family, lay wreaths at the Cenotaph in Whitehall immediately after the two-minute silence has been observed at precisely at 11 am.
Sirens, alarms, even guns are sounded to mark the beginning and end of the silence.
The first Poppy Day was held in Britain in November, 1921. Sadly, Colonel McCrae died of pneumonia in hospital in Wimereux in 1918. He left a legacy he could never have dreamt of. Rupert Brooke or Wilfred Owen might well have been the “voice” of the First War, but it was a Canadian physician who wrote In Flanders Fields.
Here it is:
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.
P.S. Here are two samples of my Father’s letter from the war: