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Why do certain words or phrases stick with us throughout our lifetime. Upon hearing such words, you can never un-hear them, you know? As this Remembrance Day 2013 fast approaches I find myself wondering.
Look, I’ve never been to war and I sincerely hope and pray that I never have to. War, from my understanding, is a brutal and dehumanizing pursuit. And here’s the rub; those who start, pursue and encourage wars are rarely, if ever, those who have to pay the piper when the bill comes due. My family, pretty much exclusively on my Dad’s side, stood up and were counted when they were called upon to do so. The fact that, at the time, they had absolutely no concept of that which it was they were committing to.
But that isn’t nor shouldn’t be taken for unique. I’m not quite that far removed from my youth that I am incapable of recalling that feeling, neh certainty, of indestructibility. When you are young, in your mind anyway, no harm will ever befall you. At times of war, patriotism is not only built on this certainty; it relies upon it. If the art of war appeals to you, even in the slightest way, then you owe it to yourself to watch fellow Canadian Gwynne Dyer’s stunning mini-series War. Not into watching re-runs? Then you should look up his book, War, which was based upon said mini-series
In a perfect world, the topic of war would be such a foreign concept as to be abhorrent. Yet life doesn’t work that way. You see, human emotion gets in the way, as it frequently does. Did you know that World War I started as a result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Yet, for purely political reasons, Austria-Hungary delivered a list of ten demands that were designed to be unacceptable to Serbia. Serbia agreed to eight of the ten demands, at which point Austira-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
The Russian Empire, allied with Serbia ordered a partial mobilization. Germany balked and demanded that France remain neutral. France did not remain neutral. Germany invaded Belgium, attacked French troops and declared war on Russia. As an ally of Russia, Great Britain were duty bound to declare war on Germany.
And so, the very first instance of Total War in the mechanized age was initiated. For no better reason than a lesser ally of a world power had a disagreement with another lesser ally of another world power.
Just how messed up is that.
Yet similar alliances persist to this very day. Why, you may well ask? Who the hell knows. Certainly not the world leaders of the post WWI era. Despite the universally horrific result of the first war to end all wars, just a little shy of 11 years later the world, once again, found itself at war. And what, you may ask, sparked this new spate of hostility? Would you be shocked to learn WWII came to pass due, in very large part, to the failure of a mediocre painter? Don’t believe me, do you. Starting in 1905 Adolf Hitler was living a bohemian lifestyle in Vienna working as a casual labourer and, ultimately, a painter. The Academy of Fine Arts Vienna twice rejected his attempts to become a student citing his “unfitness for painting”.
With the outbreak of World War I some years later, Hitler volunteered to serve in the Bavarian Army and served as a dispatch runner in France and Belgium. He was wounded at the Battle of The Somme and was awarded the Iron Cross second class for bravery. Probably due to the dedication of a senior officer, his Iron Cross was upgraded to a first class medal in 1918. He was later temporarily blinded at the battle of Pasewalk during a Mustard Gas attack. While recuperating there Hitler learned of Germany’s defeat.
Hitler became a proponent of the stab-in-the-back myth which stated the German army did not loose the war and had been undefeated in the field. To his way of thinking, Germany lost the war because of betrayals on the home front, by Marxists, civilian leaders and, most especially, Jews. The second war to end all wars came about exclusively because some second rate soldier took offense to the, admittedly, over punitive sanctions placed upon his homeland as a condition of Germany’s unilateral capitulation.
Obviously if you recognize the name Adolf Hitler, you will know where his misguided animosity lead the world. If you don’t recognize the name you should probably away to Wikipdedia and catch up with the rest of us.
So, where does the title of this post figure into all of this?
Sorry, not quite there yet. But soon, I promise.
I’ve already written about Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s hastily scribbled little something which he promptly tossed out before being retrieved by fellow soldiers. The title of this discarded scribbling was In Flanders Fields, one of the most popular and quoted poems from the war.
This nearly orphaned poem has, over the years, become one of the greatest symbols of loss associated with war.
Where am I going with this?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.
For the Fallen is a poem written by Laurence Binyon, an English poet, dramatist and art scholar, first published in The Times in September of 1914. He wrote this poem while sitting on the cliffs between Pentrie Point and The Rumps in north Cornwall. At the time, the poem was written to honour the mounting British Expeditionary Force casualties during these early days of WWI while the western front was still developing and the troops started digging in to foxholes which would eventually develop into the system of trenches that would dominate the landscape for much of the first world war.
The poem itself has seven stanzas, yet it is the third and fourth stanzas that have come to the fore. More often than not, it is just the fourth stanza. It is this fourth stanza that has come to be known as the Ode of Remembrance, a tribute to all casualties of war, regardless of state.
I suppose this ode resonates so completely with me due in no small part to my firm belief that we should not turn on those who go to war on our behalf. Those who defend us are rarely, if ever, those who start the conflict. Yet they put their lives on the line for us; folks they have never, ever met. I know, I hear you. I, to, have spared some change for a complete and utter stranger at the corner of Yonge and Dundas. Yet this barely even scratches the surface of the sacrifice these young men and women have and are offering themselves up for. Even if they return home physically intact, the mental toll exacted upon them is unimaginable. Unless you have been there yourself.
And so, for all of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that we may live in peaace, I offer up the fourth verse of Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance:
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.
We WILL remember them.
P.S. Did the images I chose to include in this post disturb you in any way shape of form? If they did then, good, they were meant to. War is never pretty. If they didn’t then, what is wrong with you?