Friday, November 11, 2005

Red poppies.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, hostilities officially ended in the conflict that many piously hoped would be the "War to End All Wars." Sadly, World War I was far from the last international conflict in what would become the bloodiest century in the history of humankind. Nonetheless, Armistice Day retains a special resonance. Over time, the anniversary of the end of the First World War has become a more universal day of remembrance. In the United States, today is the date of Veterans Day, a holiday honoring all who have served in the country's armed forces. In Canada and other British Commonwealth countries, today is Remembrance Day, a holiday paying particular homage to those who died in the First and Second World Wars.

Working in Windsor has given me a much greater appreciation for the Canadian commemoration of Remembrance Day. Broadly speaking, Remembrance Day seems to be a much bigger deal in Canada than Veterans Day is in the United States. Undoubtedly, the fact that Remembrance Day focuses on the dead while Veterans Day celebrates the living helps give the former a much more solemn character. It also helps that World War II was the last major armed conflict that Canada was involved in, giving that war a much more central place in the Canadian national consciousness than it has in the United States. Beyond these factors, there's another reason Remembrance Day has such a high profile in Canada: red poppies.

During the past few weeks, it seems like every other person I've seen in Windsor has been sporting a red poppy on their jacket or shirt. Adopted in the wake of the First World War as a memorial emblem honoring the war dead, the red poppy is an international symbol with particularly Canadian origins. While serving on the Western Front during World War I, Canadian army physician John McCrae wrote an elegiac tribute to his fallen comrades entitled "In Flanders Fields":
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 among 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.
McCrae's poem helped make the red poppy a popular token of remembrance. In the early 1920's, artificial red poppies began to bloom on lapels across the British Empire, and they still appear each year in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day. The Royal Canadian Legion's annual Poppy Campaign keeps alive an important tradition and also raises funds to support aging veterans. Though Remembrance Day and its traditions are very new to me, I'm doing my bit today by wearing the red poppy. I'm one of millions who are doing so today. Most of us too young to remember the last world war, but by wearing the poppy we're making an important statement - we remember, and we won't forget. AMDG.


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