A Century of Poppies…and Larks

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015 Photo: Peter Denton

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

“The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below”

The 100th anniversary this year in May of Lt. Col John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” has been marked by many. For all of its lines, the one that sticks in my head is not about torches or poppies, but about the larks, still bravely singing, that fly over the battlefield.

They are evidence of the tenacity and resilience of life, the continuity with the earth and the rhythms of nature, precisely at the time when the destructive powers of humanity are at their most devastating.

The guns pulverized the landscape, churning the soil so that the lime underneath made it inhospitable to other plants, while encouraging the poppies to flourish. Incoming or outgoing, the noise of artillery shattered thoughts as easily as eardrums. One withstood the barrage, survived the noise, waited for the space that followed the crump and crash of shells, knowing that the sounds of silence meant survival – for now.

It also could signal the start of an attack, as the barrage lifted, so one needed to rush out to the firestep to be sure, peering through the fog, the mist, the dusk or dawn, perhaps to see light glinting from the bayonets of a charging enemy.

In the midst of such muddy chaos, it was impossible to look beyond the moment, to think beyond the instinct for survival. Yet in the letters written home from the trenches, the sketches, the poems, some still did — preserving their own identity and humanity in the midst of an experience implacable about erasing both.

Where 1914 included the initial euphoria of those off to the grand adventure that would bring them home for Christmas, 1915 settled into the mud of Flanders. There was bitter and inconclusive fighting, Ypres, poison gas, the disaster at Gallipoli and the realization that no one would be going anywhere soon, except to the cemeteries that were already filled with more casualties than Europe had seen since the Napoleonic wars.

In that context, McCrae looked around at the poppies and then up to the sky, seeing and hearing the larks.

Remembrance Day ceremonies always move me. Where I attend, pomp and polish are usually missing, the printed program as stumbled with mistakes as the ceremony — and the delivery of words and messages as faltering as the veterans who march past.

But if the service is dusted off each year, along with the old blazers and racks of medals, much younger ones now join those old faces. Canada was at war in Afghanistan longer than in any other time in its history – those veterans walk among us, every day. They are at soccer practice and swimming lessons, waiting for ballet to wrap up or the instruments to be put away at the end of rehearsal. Their children have grown up worried whether about daddy or mummy will come home from the war. Their families continue to deal with the stresses back home of the effects of war on their own identity and humanity.

I don’t know how many of my Royal Military College students have been there and back, just that too many have. None were among the 158 fatalities, for which I am thankful, but I am sure that others have come home with physical and mental scars to mark their service to Canada and to the people of Afghanistan and elsewhere.

So however garbled the local ceremony, however awkward the procession, my thoughts always rise above the event, like the larks in McCrae’s poem. Remembering what I have never experienced, imagining places I have never been, seeing people whom I have never met, it matters that I am there. It’s what keeping faith means.

At the end of the service, I always pin my poppy to the green artificial turf at the base of the white cross that serves as the portable memorial at the civic ceremony in Winnipeg. I remember when it first started to happen – how it took organizers by surprise – but it became more moving than the dignitaries laying their plastic wreathes. Ordinary people, tears in their eyes from thoughts and memories unshared, old and young, mark their own place in that remembrance.

By coincidence, I was in Ottawa for the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and placed my poppy on it at the end of that ceremony, becoming part of a tradition that I expect will continue regardless of what else happens on the Hill.

It’s more than a sign of respect. It is a reminder that we need to live each day committed to the spirit of sacrifice, out of concern for others — caring about principles that will lead to a better world for everyone and not just for ourselves.

That kind of act, in the midst of whatever battles we are fighting, whatever the sound of the guns in our own lives, whatever dread comes upon us in the silence, is how we rise above the din of daily conflict that can otherwise overwhelm us.

Like the larks, still bravely singing, we are reminded of who we are, whose we are and where we are headed, because there is much more to life than what we find in Flanders’ muddy fields.

Peter Denton, Ph.D., is Adjunct Associate Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada, whose students he has been privileged to teach since 2003.

Symbols of Change in Paris

Major Groups and Regional Representatives meeting with Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria), the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning (UNEA1, Nairobi, June 26, 2014)

Major Groups and Regional Representatives meeting with Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria), the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning (UNEA1, Nairobi, June 26, 2014)

Canada does not need to take new climate commitments to Paris – just a new attitude.

The substance can (and must) come later. For now, symbols are more important – and the Maple Leaf too long has been absent.

United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner, in an op-ed in the Toronto Star (November 3), called on our new government to reclaim its leadership role in environmental diplomacy, including within UNEP, which now has responsibility for the United Nations environment file.

As the only representative of an accredited Canadian civil society organization (the United Church of Canada) at UNEP’s last two global meetings, I believe that needs to include the rest of us, too.

As a Canadian observer, I was warmly welcomed to both the UNEP’s 27th Governing Council and the first United Nations Environment Assembly – and then sharply challenged by delegates who asked “What is wrong with Canada these days?”

At UNEP HQ in Nairobi, we simply weren’t present in the numbers and with the policies that were required. On the government side, the small delegation cobbled together in 2013 was forced by security concerns to stay home in 2014, instead relaying advice through the night by cellphone to the few consular staff based there. They did their best, with integrity and without complaining, but it was not the role we should have played.

On the civil society side, our absence was even more obvious.

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