On November 11 each year, Canadians listen to John McRae’s poem:
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.
The author did not quite survive the end of the war, dying of pneumonia in 1918. This poem has been used as a recruitment tool and a call to arms in subsequent wars, and also serves to remind us of the fallen.
This reminds me of another quote often attributed to Charles de Gaulle:
‘The Graveyards are full of indispensable men.’
Indeed, may I encourage everyone to listen to Eric Bogle’s song: ‘The Green Fields for France’ (also known as Willie MacBride or No Man’s Land). This powerful ballad explores the futility of the Great War and poignantly asks;
But here in this graveyard, it’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
To a whole generation that were butchered and dammed
Well Will McBride I can’t help wonder why
Do those that lie here know why did they die?
And did they believe when they answered the call
Did they really believe that this war would end war?
World War 1 was even acknowledged to be a World War as early as 1914. Millions – including civilians – were killed or injured, chemicals were used, and cities where destroyed. Nothing about the war was ‘good’ or ‘just.’ A fractured and dysfunctional European colonial/alliance system failed and classic battle techniques met modern technology.
The so-called Great War was tribal by nature and purely brutal. After so much pain and suffering, what did it possibly achieve?
Well, World War 1 arguably lead inextricably to the next World War – including the hate, blame and genocide.
It also contributed directly to the Russian Revolution and therefore nearly a century of hot and cold war conflict.
It helped to prop up the colonial system for another 40-50 years which lead to millions of deaths in India, Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Africa.
The call; ‘Lest We Forget,’ so embedded in the Remembrance Day tradition must perpetually be linked to ‘Never Again.’ If not, there is no point.
The world of 1914 – and certainly 1918 is not a world most people want to return to. This is why leaders such as Woodrow Wilson advocated for a League of Nations (a ‘United Nations’).
More people died in European-based 20th century conflicts than at any other time in human history. The Boer War, World War 1, World War 2, Yugoslavia and the many (often forgotten) battles for colonial Independence mark a century of violence. Moreover the ideological pain of applied Marxism and the Cold War all came from a featured and class-ridden Europe.
So when we declare ‘Lest We Forget,’ we should remember those loyal men and women ‘who answered the call,’ but must also explore what call they answered.
Recently there has been a strong move back to tribalism and away from a multilateral, interdependent world. There has also been a shocking impetuous to increase military spending. Just imagine if such spending were shifted to health, education and environmental management?
This may sound unbelievable, but Costa Rica did just that in 1949, whereas Nicaragua did not. Costa Rica is now a leader in education, happiness and environmental stewardship.
We are now on a planet with over 7 billion people. Can it possibly be useful to spend billions of dollars and use up immeasurable resources to prepare for yet another conflict that may prove to be the inevitable result of all this preparation?
I am not offering a solution, so much as hoping to re-focus the conversation. Everything about World War 1 was horrible. The cause, the result and the process. I have guided many tours through battlefields around the world and have rarely come away with anything but a sense of despair.
10 years ago, we rented a car in Paris and drove up to Ypres in Belgium to visit the battlefields and attend the Remembrance Day Ceremonies. When taking little Finn out of his car seat at the Passchenedaele cemetery a British ‘gentleman’ saw our French license and said loudly; “ah, Francais! You are so lucky we saved you.” I responded in in clear English; “actually we’re here to see our Canadian and Australian relatives who died for your empire. What a tragedy.”
I am not naive enough to be a pure pacifist, but if we really want to respect the millions upon millions of those who have died in pointless conflicts, all our energy should be guided towards peace, understanding and healthy inter-dependance. There really is no planet B.
Lest We Forget