Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Poet's Pistol

The poem, the gun, the flower, the silence and the flu.

Poppies in Oxfordshire. B&J.

In the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, I chanced upon a small case featuring an apparently unremarkable example of the Colt Browning M1911 pistol.

McCrae's pistol. J.

It had belonged to John McCrae, a Canadian medic who, in his own words endured "Seventeen days of Hades!" working (one cannot imagine how) at a dressing station on the banks of the Yser Canal in Flanders in 1915, a year into the most cataclysmic war humanity had ever created.

After burying the remaining bits of a friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, the following day McCrae sat down and wrote a poem, in part inspired by the poppies that were growing in the shell-tossed earth.


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 poem, after nearly being thrown away, and rejected by the first magazine it was sent to, was published by another. (Here is a version in McCrae's own hand.) It resulted in the use of the poppy in memoriam and for fund-raising for those soldiers in need from 1918 to today. The poppies are commonly seen across the Commonwealth, but particularity Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and, of course, France. Both poem and poppies have gone on to stand for the terrific losses and tragedy of the Great War.

A minutes silence, and flag at half-mast at Echuca, Vic, 2006. J.

The idea for the minute's silence which is normally observed on the 11th of November, can be credited to Australian journalist, Edward George Honey, who believed it might make an appropriate remembrance of the fallen.

Honey published a letter in the London Evening News on 8 May 1919 under the pen name of 'Warren Foster', in which he appealed for a silence amid all the hoopla celebrating the end of the War. It was not adopted however, until Lord Milner forwarded a suggestion from his friend, the South African Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, to the King's private secretary for a period of silence on Armistice Day, 11 November, 1919, in all countries of the British Empire. (There is a remarkable online resource on the Great War here.)

The interior of the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne. Used for just about everything, since 1880, in 1918 this was an emergency flu hospital. J.

It is perhaps ironic that the doctor McCrae was to die of pneumonia in January 1918 while still serving. Many of his medical companions, weary from the Great War went on to face a far greater scourge of humanity, the great influenza pandemic of 1918. While 20 million were killed in W.W.I, estimates place the deaths in the pandemic at anywhere between 40 - 100 million. I'm not aware of a single memorial to the medical and other workers who did their best in the face of such a cataclysm.

Sadly it is now necessary for the Canadian Armed Forces (and, I'm sure all the others) to produce multiple page PowerPoint displays explaining how to wear your poppy. Likewise the Royal Canadian Legion (and, I'm sure all the others) find it necessary to produce a 59 page PDF document about how to collect for the poppy fund.

French trench with a donkey and poppies. This is the only colour photograph (one of two processes used at the time) known to show poppies on the battlefield, and was taken in 1915 by an official French war photographer.

We seem to still be able to commit war, and bureaucracy, yet winning the peace, and managing viruses seems beyond us.

And lastly, for those interested in the early colour photography of the First World War, there is an excellent selection here, and more at the Australian War Memorial site here.

These are not poppies, but Australian Frank Hurley's photo of an Australian Light Horseman picking anemones in Palestine seems appropriate.


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