The memory of poppies
Remembrance Day ensures that as a nation, though the direct links break with each passing year, the war dead are not forgotten. Photo: Andrew Sheargold
November is the cruelest month, for the poppies are blooming their colour of blood. They deny nature, these special ones, for they grow as annuals and perennials.
On Remembrance Day, the nation honours the lives, deaths and sacrifices of the military to the nation. In this act the annual absorbs the perennial nature of all war.
On Saturday, my father, president of his local RSL, will sit among the passing shoppers with his colleagues, selling poppies. He will be one of many to have done so in recent weeks.
The money helps past and present members of the armed forces in financial need.
He and his RSL mates are linked to war but not, of course, the Great War. None anywhere now live of that time. It was in the blighted landscape of World War I that these poppies were planted. They have flowered ever since, through World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. They were given life by a poet and now, almost a century later, their roots still reach into the soil.
Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian, wrote In Flanders Fields in May 1915, following the death of a fellow soldier in the Second Battle of Ypres. It reads, in part:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row,/That mark our place...
A year earlier, Laurence Binyon wrote For The Fallen, the fourth verse of which has become The Ode used in Remembrance Day ceremonies. It reads: They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;/Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn./At the going down of the sun and in the morning/We will remember them.
Remembrance Day grew from Armistice Day — November 11, 1918 when the guns fell silent. More than 9 million military personnel died in four years. Though the slaughter stopped, the war did not officially end until June, 1919, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. (Some historians believe the treaty was merely the prologue for WWII.)
On November 7, 1919, King George V, in proclaiming two minutes silence, said: ''All locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.''
How glorious to be dead. The soon-to-be-dead were glorious at the beginning, too. Binyon also wrote Fourth of August (the date Britain declared war on Germany). Now in thy splendour go before us./Spirit of England, ardent-eyed,/Enkindle this dear earth that bore us/In the hour of peril purified.
Glorious was a word of its time. The British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, chose the words ''The Glorious Dead'', which were marked upon the London cenotaph. They are read on cenotaphs around the world. To serve country and king (and implicitly, the needs of empire) was a glorious, and patriotic, duty. It was the magnet that attracted young men, ignorant of what would befall them, to war.
The Argus, of Melbourne, reported the city becoming a ''great cathedral'' during the Remembrance Day ceremony in 1920. The ''thousand noises of the streets sunk into silence. Machinery stopped, trains slowed down and came to a stop, motor cars pulled up in the roadway, the pedestrian halted on his way. The workman laid down his pick, the clerk laid down his pen all that the glorious sacrifice that Australia made in the years of war might not he forgotten in the years of peace.
''The minutes passed. Still a ghostly silence prevailed. Then the flag on the Town Hall ran up from half-mast to the head of the pole. An invisible hand seemed to set the city in motion. Its song crashed out again. But by its two minutes of silence, by the tribute of bared head and hushed voice, Melbourne showed that Melbourne had not forgotten.''
Sir William Irvine, the Lieutenant-Governor, had spoken at the official ceremony: ''His Majesty has expressed the hope that at 11 o'clock this morning there shall be throughout the Empire for a period of two minutes a complete suspension of all business work and locomotion, in order that the thoughts of all may be concentrated in reverent remembrance of the glorious dead who died in the cause of liberty and right.''
The glorious dead, however, cannot speak. Wilfred Owen, lacerated the concept in Dulce et Decorum Est. It reads, in part:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(How sweet and right it is to die for one's country, written by the Roman poet Horace almost 2000 years ago)
Adrian Gregory in The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War, writes: "For the British, the war is, at worst, an apocalyptic fall from grace, at best, the definitive bad war. The public rhetoric of Remembrance Day brackets the First and Second World War together, the poppy is worn in remembrance of the dead of both wars, and we are told incessantly that the dead of both wars sacrificed their lives to preserve our freedom. But the British public doesn't believe this. It believes that the dead of the Second World War did this, but that the dead of the First World War died in vain. In schools the First World War is taught more as tragic poetry than as history. . . . ''The war they were fighting was the 'war to end all wars'.
H.G. Wells popularised this term in August 1914. For Wells it was also 'the last war'. This was a term that would come retrospectively to encompass an irony due to the ambiguities of the English language. Whilst the war was being fought it was the last war meaning 'final', a war to end war itself.''
In the month of the first commemoration of Armistice Day, the first issue of literary magazine The London Mercury was published. In it, Thomas Hardy contributed the poem Going and Staying.
The moving sun-shapes on the spray,
The sparkles where the brook was flowing,
Pink faces, plightings, moonlit May,
These were the things we wished would stay;
But they were going.
Seasons of blankness as of snow,
The silent bleed of a world decaying,
The moan of multitudes in woe,
These were the things we wished would go;
But they were staying.
The ''silent bleed'' was there two centuries earlier. During the Napoleonic Wars, the poppies also bloomed across the torn-apart fields of war.
The British essayist William Hazlitt, writing 200 years ago almost to the day of the European Congress after the defeat of Napoleon, lamented the base factors that motivate governments and kings in their readiness to spill the lives of soldiers, and the grand illusions of lies that are born afterwards. ''War was talked of as if it had been an invention of the modern Charlemagne, and the Golden Age was to be restored with the Bourbons. But it is hard for the great and mighty to learn in the school of adversity: emperors and kings bow reluctantly to the yoke of necessity. When the panic is over, they will be glad to drink of the cup of oblivion.''
Remembrance Day ensures that as a nation, though the direct links break with each passing year, the war dead are not forgotten. The cup of oblivion shall remain empty.
More than 60,000 Australians died in WWI; 39,000 WWII; 589 Boer War; 521 Vietnam; 340 Korea; 39 Malayan Emergency; and 39 Afghanistan. All other arenas of war are below 20, making a total loss of life at about 102,000.
In the monstrous calculus of war, this tally is but a fraction of the whole. Yet each death, though singular in its bearing, is multiplied over and over in its effects on society.
Truth may be the first casualty of war, but the poets of WWI had their eyes and pens to tell of their experiences in the charnel house. Their words bloomed among the carnage.
Gloria in Excelsis.