Monday, November 07, 2011


If I should die, think only this of me

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England.

The Soldier by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

This post, as a reminder that Armistice Day, or Poppy Day, as you call it in England, is not a date the meaning of which everyone knows.

You’d be surprised at the answers some might give to the question: “What does it celebrate?’’ especially in my country, France.

Apart from the various veterans, historians, and of course politicians, few people in France will take the time to think of the meaning of the date. On November 11, of course, there will be ceremonies, but before and after that, it will be radio silence again - whereas, in Britain, in Canada and in the US, you do much more than just talk about it. It is amazing to the rest of the world to see the crowds of people marching all over the place, on the tube, on the streets, appearing on TV, and in public, wearing a poppy on their lapels. Of course every one of you knows where the idea came from, but just in case some passing foreign visitor might wish to know, here is the information:

At the origin of the tradition, there was a poem, In Flanders Fields, written by John Mc Crae a Canadian physician and poet, himself a soldier in WW1. Note that it was meant to encourage the soldiers to go on fighting for freedom.

Even though, originally the celebration was supposed to honour the memory of the dead of WW1, (and the donations meant to help the survivors) it now celebrates all the victims of the ensuing conflicts, and unfortunately, there have been many since 1918.

Not all poets were as… optimistic as John Mc Crae. Siegfried Sassoon, for one, was able to conciliate publicly a pacifist’s and a fighter’s stand, and to survive the Great War, contrary to Wilfred Owen,whose poems tell so stunningly of the small lies, the blindness of all those who were not up on the front, and the horror of dying at twenty something, were it for one’s country. In this poem in particular:

Even though Owen was shell-shocked and hospitalized, he went back to the front, where he was killed a week before this very Armistice Day that we’ll be celebrating this week.

Here is a poem by Sassoon, taken from this site.

I knew a simple soldier boy

Who grinned at life in empty joy,

Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,

And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum

With crumps and lice and lack of rum,

He put a bullet through his brain.

No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you'll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go.

The words of all those poems still ring to our ears.

To honour their authors again and again, let us try not to drown our emotion in the cart of the supermarket on November 11, maybe we could, instead, answer the little children’s questions, and maybe also remember for a minute those poets who never had the time to feed on the beauty of any poppies, since they found themselves pushing up the daisies, early, far too early.


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Catherine's article about war, poetry reminds me of a visit I made to Bayeux Cathedral (Calvados, France) a few years ago. At the time I was doing some research for a university course. Below one of the war memorials inside the cathedral was a poppy wreath that had evidently been left there by a group of Normandy Veterans from the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division.

Also visiting the cathedral at the were a couple of French ladies ('troisième âge' as one would say). They were discussing who may have placed a wreath of poppies in the cathedral and what it was for.

When I got talking to them, it turned out these two ladies came from Paris and were on holiday in the area. I explained that the poppy was the usual flower of remembrance for those lost in war in the English-speaking world, and of course mentioned John McCrae's WW1 poem. They had never heard of the poem or Dr John McCrae! Nevertheless, they had quite a few stories of their own about WW1 and WW2.

In my experience the poppy is not that widely used to represent the 'remembrance' of war by the French. Many French people - like Catherine - will have seen the use of the poppy as a tribute by British and Commonwealth visitors to the war graves sites in France.

Having been inspired by John McCrae's poem, the idea to use the poppy as the symbol of remembrance is usually atributed the American school teacher Miss Moina Belle Michael. A summary of this story can be found here:

Moina Belle Michael and the poppy

According to Moina Michael wearing the poppy was ... "keeping the faith with all who died".

At the time of the Armistice (November 1918) Moina Michael wrote her own poem about the poppy wreath and remembering those who had died in the recent war. This poem can be found here:

We Shall Keep The Faith

The Royal British Legion, established in 1921. It uses the poppy as a potent symbol prticularly leading up to Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday each year. The Legion has a factory at Aylesford (near Maidstone), Kent which makes poppy wreaths, sprays, chapelets and crosses.

Tuesday, 08 November, 2011  

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