Lest We Forget
By Oliver Cresswell
They say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Yet sadly, while this weekend marks the 104th observation of Remembrance Day, the world is once again at war.
I originally wrote that last line as “the world is once again on the brink of war” but we’re not really are we? We’re already there. Russia and Ukraine have been going at it for almost two years, and Israel and Palestine (or HAMAS, depending on your perspective) are once again in the throes of it, with other Western and Eastern powers joining in by proxy.
Remembrance Day is the day we honour our fallen and serving veterans, and others who have lost their lives to war. We wear poppies in honour of those who fell in Flanders and the many fields of battle since. Observation of the day, first known as Armistice Day, started in 1919 a year after the end of WWI – The Great War, The War to End All Wars. Clearly it wasn’t.
Lest We Forget.
During WWII the observation was moved from the 11th November specifically to the Sunday preceding it, so as not to interrupt the war effort. While most of us are not today engaged in the production of the materials of war, is there not still a sort of sad irony in the observation of Remembrance Day while we simultaneously support or fund ongoing wars from afar?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t observe or honour it. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s probably the one day above all others that we should remember, and remember deeply.
I spoke last evening with others who felt that the observation of Remembrance Day seems to be less central in our culture these days. Many of us grew up attending often large ceremonies at memorials or cenotaphs where elderly veterans were the center of a deeply emotional and reverential experience. Perhaps the waning of such services is a sign only that WWI and WWII are now moving beyond living memory, but there are plenty of other wars and veterans of them deserving of our recognition. A fact which tells me that we don’t remember very well.
For wasn’t that the point? Didn’t our ancestors fight so that there would be peace, so that others would not have to go to war? Around 20 million people died during WWI, most of whom were civilians. WWII’s death toll was even more staggering, with military deaths totaling 15 million and civilian deaths reaching more than 38 million. And that dimension of war is often overlooked; that it’s more likely those who do not wage them or fight in them that pay the highest price. And it’s never (rarely) the rich and powerful marching off to throw down with the rich and powerful from across the way.
It is the children of the poor we send
to kill the children of the poor…
– Pat Schneider, from Two Thousand Deaths in “How The Light Gets In”
My 7 year old son asked me the other night about his paternal Great-Great Grandad Oliver, my namesake. I told him what I’ve learned and what I’m trying to uncover about his service in WWI, and when I mentioned the war going on over Christmas he said, “that’s not fair, they wouldn’t get any presents!”
I told him then of the Christmas Truce of 1914. How on Christmas Eve the fighting had mostly stopped across two thirds of the Front Lines, and the British and Germans started singing Christmas Carols, and even met in No Man’s Land to exchange stories, gifts and play football. Newspapers were among the items exchanged too, and each side laughed at the lies and propaganda spun in ink in the other side’s papers. In most places the spontaneous truce lasted only through Christmas Day, perhaps Boxing Day as well. But in some areas the truce lasted until mid-January. I’ve always thought that was a beautiful thing.
The Truce ended because the Generals and High Command on both sides of the lines disapproved – how dare there be peace during war! They ordered the artillery and machine guns to open up, commanding their soldiers to fire on the men with whom they had so recently bonded. Remember too, that refusing to fight, to go over the top to engage “the enemy”, or desertion, was a capitol offence, punishable by execution. These men had guns pointed at their heads on both sides, and so the war continued for another 3 years, and millions died.
Lest We Forget.
J.R.R. Tolkien saw the horrors of WWI first hand, and I’ve often thought this passage from The Lord of The Rings reflects his personal sentiments about war:
It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would rather have stayed there in peace.
Through the eyes of a peaceful Hobbit we are encouraged to ask, who is the enemy? British soldiers on the Front Lines during the Christmas Truce learned that many of their “enemies” once worked in England; they may have crossed paths, bought their meat from the same butcher, or shared drinks in the same pubs. They cared for their family, they loved music and food. They found, in remarkable contrast to what they had been told, that they were not unlike themselves. They saw the truth that there is more about us that is the same than is different.
The final stanza of John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields, which inspired the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, reads:
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.
I’ve recently begun to wonder who the “foe” might be that he’s referring to. At first pass it’s easy to think that it’s the Germans, or Austrians, the “bad guys” of WWI. But poetry is rarely that simple. McCrae wrote the poem in the Spring of 1915 after losing a friend in Ypres, and only mere months after the Christmas Truce. He would have witnessed and perhaps even participated in the peaceful exchanges of that day, until he was ordered by his higher ups to restart the war.
What’s more, it is a “quarrel” with a foe, not a fight or battle that he is asking us to take up. The lightness of the description seems unfit for the reality of WWI or any war for that matter, being more suited to that of a debate or argument. McCrae also passes to us not a weapon, but a torch, a symbol of knowledge, of warmth, a light in dark places. Peace.
I wonder, then, if the foe could perhaps be the enemy of peace itself; those who would stir up fear and hatred and issue their orders to the children of the poor; those who are opposed to the light of peace handed down from one generation to the next and who balk at it when it halts their grand designs; those in whose interest it is that there be wars they themselves do not fight.
If that’s true I don’t think we’ve remembered the lessons that McCrae, Tolkien and others learned first hand, and tried in their own ways to impart to us. I hope for my children’s sake, and your children’s sake, that we soon remember. For we are seeing all around us what happens Lest We Forget.