Every Remembrance Day my heart grows heavy and aches while I watch the TV documentaries and ceremonies commemorating those who have died in wars. There have been years when I have watched documentary footage on the BBC or CBC and have sobbed.
Since my British born Grandfather and Polish born Great-Grandfather (of German heritage) served in the 1st World War, my thoughts go back across a span of a hundred years. I was surprised to learn, while watching CBC’s The National tonight, that the largest number of Canadians died in the 1st World War. (Approximately 66,000.) Since so many men died in that war, there was a whole generation of women who never married. Yet another untold story of sacrifice and loss. They grew old and died never fulfilling their wish to marry and have a family. It is said that the 1st World War was a particularly horrific experience. Despite the passage of time and the disconnect one might feel with such an old event, footage from this particular war weighs heaviest on me.
I have not lived in a country affected by an armed conflict and therefore have no appreciation for what that might be like. I did have a unique experience, however, the last time I visited the Canadian War Museum when it was in its original location on Sussex Drive. It was a hot summer day in Ottawa and I decided to visit the museum on my own. Strangely, when I entered the main exhibition space nobody else was in the room. I knew the layout because I had visited the museum a few times previously. As I entered the space where there was a simulation of a trench during a battle, I looked out across the view of the battle field and heard the gunfire around me and the loud noises. Perhaps it was because I was alone. Or perhaps it was because I have studied the 1st World War and know about the terrible conditions people endured in the trenches. I suddenly panicked and rushed around the corner to run out of the trench, only to stop dead in my tracks in front of a man in a uniform. What a shock! My heart skipped a beat. It was a mannequin in a First World War uniform. For the briefest of moments I felt how terrifying it must have been to be in a trench and yet I’ll never understand the true terror that men and women have experienced in the battle field.
A little over 15 years ago I sat at a kitchen table in Oak Bay, Victoria with a Canadian man who served with the British Navy and a 70 something Canadian who served with the Canadian Navy. The latter told a story about being on a corvette boat during World War II. These small format boats travelled in convoys as escorts to larger merchant ships. They were no match against the increasingly sophisticated German U-Boat submarines. Ultimately his boat was torpedoed and he ended up being thrown into the water. Years later he and the captain of this U-Boat became friends. German Naval officers were considered to be career military men and, therefore, have been seen as having separate ideals and goals than those held by Adolf Hitler and his military colleagues. This story was an interesting reminder that even enemies in war time can eventually become friends.
While I was still a student in university and studying in Japan, I attended a social function with a group of international students. One young woman from Finland looked down at her outfit and proudly declared that the grey wool pants she was wearing and another piece of clothing were part of her grandfather’s SS uniform. Another student from Italy happily declared that his grandfather had also been in the SS. As I looked at her outfit I felt a chill. “If only these pants could talk”, I thought. It was an early lesson to me that one’s perspective on a war and its participants is different depending on whether your country was on the losing side, or not.
On a contemporary note, I have had an opportunity to feel the anguish that comes from seeing your home town affected by war. Over the years I have watched with keen interest as two Bush administrations approved military excursions into Iraq. The first took place during the conflict in Kuwait and, of course, the second took place prior to Saddam Hussein’s downfall in Iraq. At the time of the second military deployment I was living in a graduate residence at UBC with many students who came from countries in the Middle East. I heard many diverse opinions about how events were unfolding. During the early days of the attacks, in the first few years of the new millennium, I watched as news stories showed Baghdad streets being pumelled with explosives. I saw news reports of local residents being harmed and killed. I cried – I sobbed – for a place that was one of a number of home towns when I grew up as a member of a foreign service family.
On Remembrance Day I join other Canadians as we remember those who loved and were loved, and now are gone – all in the name of war and peace.
In Flanders Fields
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.
Here is a beautiful presentation of In Flanders Field by the Fraser Valley Dance Troupe accompanied by Anthony Hutchcroft. The expressive choreography provides a physicality that brings the poem vividly to life.
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