Remembrance Day


To me, Remembrance Day is one of the most sacred dates of the year.  The powerful message of the day unifies us all, no matter what our background and political beliefs are, as we honour those who made ultimate sacrifices and faced unfathomable horror.  It’s pretty jarring to think of lost generations of men and women, leading ordinary lives, who were called to make extraordinary sacrifices, and of how the past remains a constant, harrowing present for those who survived.  The issue of commemoration, while seemingly neutral on the surface, can still be fraught with tensions and competing versions of history.  History tends to be written by the winners, and sometimes the writing of one’s own glorious history involves re-writing the histories of others.  I find acts of commemoration especially meaningful when framed to think of those caught in war as ordinary human beings, subject to the whims and decisions of political leaders, rather than in terms of good or evil incarnate.   War literature, especially the anti-war poets of the First World War, is particularly effective at capturing these sentiments, and I would like to share a few of my favourite war poems with you.    

“In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae, is one Canada’s most enduring and distinctive symbols.   Inspired by the imagery of the poem, the wearing of poppies in Canada, the UK, and the rest of the Commonwealth, is a powerful tribute to our war dead.  Written by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae following the death of his friend, the poem remains one of the most popular pieces of war literature of the past century.

\”In Flanders Fields\”

The Great War poets, particularly Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, wrote defiantly against the common public perception that war was a grand adventure, a rite of passage, and a necessary expression of patriotism, and exposed the shocking, realistic horrors of war.  Their accounts of the development of gas and trench warfare, as well as the dissonance between the decision-makers at home and the soldiers who suffered the consequences of these decisions, give an eloquent and powerful alternative to the romantic language and imagery commonly found in earlier war poems and other literature.

“At the Cenotaph,by Siegfried Sassoon

I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
“Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive;
Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.”
The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.

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