Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lest We Forget

November 11 - A Personal Reflection

PoppyLike many Canadians and members of other Commonwealth Countries I have been wearing a stylized poppy on my lapel the past few days. My Italian dentist, asked me on Monday what it meant. Was it for some sort of "festa" or celebration, he asked. I'm sure my explanation in bad Italian left him as perplexed as when he asked the question. But then I began to think - why have I worn a poppy this time of year for almost as long as I can remember? What does it mean? Or perhaps more accurately does it still mean anything?

I would probably have been 4 or 5 when I wore my first poppy and stood for two minutes of silence with the rest of my classmates to remember the war dead. Back then World War II was still a recent event - I had friends who had lost relatives in the combat, my uncle had served overseas, we had people in our neighbourhood who had come to Canada after their homeland and families had been devastated by the war. Unfortunately we also picked on the few German kids in the area because they had "killed" Harry Simmons' uncle. It was history but it was recent history. So when we stood, uncommonly quiet, in school assembly it had a resonance that we may not have understood completely but felt none the less.

I recall that in those early years there were a few veterans of the Boer War at the Cenotaph in Toronto. As time passed they had joined their fallen comrades as did veterans from World War I - the last known Canadian veteran of the Great War, John Babcock, died this past February at the age of 109. And today at commemorations throughout Canada and the world, the men and women who honour friends and colleagues who died in World War II and even the Korean War are becoming fewer and fewer.

So perhaps for many Canadians the reason for remembering is fading from memory. But sadly battles continue, though not on the scale of those "Great Wars," and we still have reasons to remember. I hear of the death of a former young colleague’s husband in Afghanistan and know their son will never get to meet his father, I see footage of the cortège of another Canadian soldier making its way from Trenton along the 401, I witness the struggles of friends who have served in our military abroad as they come to grips with what they have experienced – and I see that these events have as much resonance for me today as those of 50-odd years ago.

But why a poppy and what does it signify? The poppy's significance comes from Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields. McCrae, an army physician who died in January 1918 at a field hospital, wrote the poem during a lull in the fighting in May of 1915. The poppies grew wild in the battlefields and cemeteries around Flanders. They soon came to represent both the blood shed in war and the sacrifice made by the men and women who served. And tradition says that it is worn on the left close to the heart.

When I got a little older and joined the school choir I remember we sang McCrae's poem at school assembly every November 11. I don't believe this is the version we sang - I know there are several - but I found this rendition particularly moving.

How can I not do something as simple as wearing a poppy to remember?

Will Hobbs