November 11, 2014 § 1 Comment
One thing I have learned teaching history, of all varieties (World, Western Civ, American, Irish) is that human beings have long held a fascination with killing each other. Human beings have developed all kinds of methodologies and technologies dedicated to making murder easier and faster, from crucifixion, to Dr. Guillotine’s invention, to machine guns, tanks, bombers, etc. I may be a cynic, but I believe that a world without war is impossible, based on history. I’m reading Njal’s Saga, a Norse saga set in Iceland, amongst the Vikings, in the late 10th century. The violence just goes around in cycles, as a feud develops between two good friends, Njal and Gunnar.
And yet, today is Remembrance Day (or Veteran’s Day in the United States). On 11 November, every year, I think of several things. First, I think of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the sad, lonely death of Paul Bäumer, killed on the morning of 11 November 1918, amongst the last casualties of the Great War. I think of the Treaty of Versailles, and all the damage caused by France’s very understandable desire to punish Germany. I think of how the Germans were complicit in Hitler’s rise to power. I think of the Japanese imperial mandate and the horrors of its empire, and I think of the butchery of both World Wars. The Somme. The trenches. Dresden. The Blitz. Hiroshima. Nagasaki.
I also think of Dr. John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders’ Field”:
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.
When I was a kid in school back home in Canada, and I had to memorise this poem every November; it depressed me. It made me want to cry (I probably did cry a couple of times when I was really young). McCrae wrote this poem on 3 May 1915 after he presided over the funeral of his friend, Alexis Helmer, after the Second Battle of Ypres. McCrae himself met his end in the First World War, on 28 January 1918, of pneumonia, at the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne.
I also think of my own grandparents, Rodney Rupert Browne (1925-98) and Eleanor Shipman Browne (1918-2003). Rod and Eleanor, who didn’t yet know each other, served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. I don’t know when Eleanor joined, but I know that Rod enlisted when he was 17 in 1943, just before his 18th birthday. He served as a tail gunner. He never talked about what he saw or what he did during the war. And I knew better than to ask him. Same with Eleanor. Whilst she was obviously based in England, I know she saw horrors, of injured men, of German bombing blitzes. Rod came back to Montreal and married another woman, who bore him three children (two of whom, including my mother Carole Anne, and her brother, Russell, survived), and Eleanor went back to Ontario and married another man. Both ended up divorced, and they met in the 1960s and married. They remained together until Rod died of cancer on Christmas Day, 1998. Eleanor, who was a feisty old gal, held on until 2003, when she died that summer.
Rod is the reason I became an historian. One day in 1992, he met me in Montreal (I lived in Ottawa; he and Eleanor had retired to Gananoque, Ontario), and for some reason, he took me on a tour of his Montreal, showing me my family’s past, he inculcated in me that day a sense of my own history, my own past. And he and Eleanor nurtured it in me until the end of their lives. And they loved me and supported me unconditionally.
But the Second World War profoundly marked them. They both came home scarred by what they had seen. They both wandered in the wilderness for a couple of decades after 1945.
So, for them, I wore poppies every year in Canada, something I can no longer do in the United States. But, it is them I will be thinking of today (though I still miss them both every day), and all their comrades-in-arms, all those who did not come back (including the wars since 1945), those who came home troubled, damaged, and who have had to struggle to regain an equilibrium.
Lest we forget.