Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The last remembrance

Papaver rhoeas

As of this writing, there are about a dozen survivors, of those who wore the uniform, in the war to end all wars: the great war, the european war, world war one. These men are well into their eleventh decade of life, some the twelfth. Throughout much of the british commonwealth and France, Armistice Day is remembered and observed on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” It was then in 1918, that, hostilities ceased on the western front between the allies and the germans. The armistice, the agreement, was signed, a few hours earlier, in Compiègne, France. The word spread immediately; the shooting and killing did not stop
immediately. Joseph Persico* has calculated 11,000 casualties that day. Officially, all the french, who, died that day, had died the day before.

In some of these countries, the day is informally called “Poppy Day”. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a canadian physician, penned a rondeau early on in the war, May 3, 1915.
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.
Now, the corn pop
py is scarlet and grows as a weed, in agricultural fields, in Belgium and northeastern France. These were also the fields of war, death and burial of millions. Both, Moina Michael of Athens, Georgia and Mme. Anna Guérin of Paris, found the poppy as appropriate for remembrance of the war dead. Mme. Guérin started to produce and sell artificial poppies, in order to raise funds, for the war victims. This became a charitable exercise in Britain, Canada and the US, also..

There was much brilliant and poignant war poetry, often by soldiers, whom, did not survive the war; McCrae did not. In the 1970s, Eric Bogle wrote two songs about the surviving veterans and the war dead. After visiting a military cemetery in France, Bogle eulogised, one of several, Willie McBrides (No Man's Land, The Green Fields of France). The other song, And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, refers to successive ANZAC parades, where fewer and fewer veterans march.
And so now every April, I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving old dreams of past glory,
And the old men march slowly, all bones stiff and sore,
They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”
And I ask meself the same question.

But the band plays “Waltzing Matilda,”
And the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear
Someday, no one will march there at all.
Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax. 2004.

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