Pass torch to younger hands

(November 10, 2020)

“In Flanders Fields” is woven into the framework of my memories of Remembrance Day ceremonies. For years I have wondered why that poem stands out more than others I have read from the Great War.

It could be somewhat personal: I recall the plaque identifying the McCrae family pew in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Guelph, and John McCrae’s name etched into the Memorial Wall at the University of Toronto, close to the arch I passed through many times.

I was brought to think of that poem again this year, as I listened to a young girl bravely recite it, supported by her mother in dress uniform and medals, as part of a service in Stony Mountain intended to be streamed on this strangest of all Remembrance Days.

There is a simple plaque on the cenotaph in Stony Mountain, noting that it contributed the most volunteers, per capita, of any community in the British Commonwealth, to service in the Second World War. Every year, their intergenerational Remembrance Day service has been packed to capacity by their descendants.

One line from that poem caught my attention, this time: “To you, from failing hands we throw the torch…” Taking a pause from treating (as best he could) the wounded and dying from the unending horrors of trench warfare on the western front, McCrae knew his generation was failing the test it had been given at the start of a new century. In a shattered world in which there were many victims but no victors, those who survived knew the reality of that failure, too.

Mere months after the armistice ending the First World War, even before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, people started preparing for the next war. Pandemic disease (the Spanish flu) followed world war. Later, the global economy fell into the Great Depression. To desperate people, the promise of strong leadership led them to support totalitarianism and fascism.

But at least, on the Allied side, there was victory in 1945. Seventy-five years ago, we won. There was no failure, this time. In the surge of triumphant emotion, the United Nations was then set up, riding that wave of victory into a better future. We had caught that torch, held it high, and let the dead finally rest in peace, in Flanders fields and elsewhere.

Believing this was to be some final victory, however, turned out to be a serious mistake. The generation that caught McCrae’s torch and fought through everything to win in 1945 did not, in turn, throw the torch to the next generation. They (and their children, the baby boomers) did not lay the necessary foundation for future generations. Instead, deciding on their own reward for sacrifices made and services rendered, they have built a world only they themselves are able to enjoy.

These are harsh words, aimed as much at myself as anyone over the age of 50 who reads this. But they are true.

In some ways, the people of Germany and Japan have done a better job — there was no triumph for them in 1945, just a shattered society that (literally) had to be rebuilt from the ground up. That generation could see its failures all around, every day, and so worked hard to make amends to the next generation.

Certainly, in reunited Germany, that sense of loss, guilt and determination is palpable — inescapably woven into the fabric of its society, because everyone remembers, still, the high cost of failure.

Here in North America, we seem to have forgotten victory costs almost as much as defeat. The gains of a post-war world have steadily eroded since 1945. We now live in a society that seems more polarized and less tolerant every day. The gap between the obscenely rich and the rest of us widens.

More troubling, that sense of voluntary service to others has faded with time. (Think of the community service groups that have withered and died, as the Royal Canadian Legion struggles to survive.) Members of that wartime generation set an example of service, without communicating clearly to the next generation why they felt so compelled to volunteer.

They held on to the torch, and my generation did not demand it. Instead, we baby boomers have amused ourselves and each other into the mess we are all facing today. Twenty years into the next century, our own world war has been against the planet, not each other. Now, our own pandemic is here, too.

In the U.S. between 1933 and 1939, the New Deal responded to the Great Depression with programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations.

The world, not just the U.S., needs a global New Deal — a green one, in which there is ecological justice, racial equality and economic sufficiency for all. We are called, once again, to live in service for others — especially for that next generation, into whose younger hands, very soon, we must throw the torch.

Otherwise, we will be the ones who break faith.

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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.