There are those of us old enough to remember our great-grandfathers, who when pressed with a child’s questions about The Great War would talk in quiet and protected ways. They saved their stories for their fellow soldiers down at the American Legion or VFW, where they could drink hard liquor and tell each other about the horrors they witnessed in far away lands, at the hands of the first mechanized warfare. They were told it was the “War to End All Wars” but they must have known better. My great-grandfather, George Henry Krider, served in the First American Expeditionary Force that went to Europe in WWI. While I do not know his regiment or tour of duty, I do know that he was mustard gassed and barely survived. He had breathing problems all 85 years of his life.
He and his buddies would ask us kids to sell the poppy boutonnieres that we rarely see nowadays. Those doughboys are now all long gone and the memory of their service wanes. In America, we tend to treat Veterans’ Day more as a celebration of Sparta and less as a day of extreme loss and sorrow. For our allies in the Great War, November 11–the Armistice Day–represents an end to the most violent war in their cultural memory. In England, where the poppy is worn to this day, whole towns saw no sons return from the battle. The scions of family names were cast to oblivion.
The British wear the poppy in honor of their forebearers. They also mourn the loss of all their sons in the maw of war. In particular are those artists–musicians and poets–whose pens were silenced in the battle. And it is from one particular pen that the poppy became a symbol of remembrance:
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.
Written by John McCrae in honor of a fallen comrade, the poem was highly popular. McCrae was a Canadian field physician, who died at the end of the war from pneumonia contracted in the field. The words were first used for to recruit soldiers for the cause, but have since returned to their more honest origin–of sorrow.
While the British and her Commonwealth Nations still honor their war dead in this way, to this day in Washington, DC, there is no memorial to hold a remembrance for our great-grandfathers and their fellow soldiers. Official America has forgotten this conflict. While Congress and others play politics in advance of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice (in 2018), each Veterans’ Day in my mind falls a bit hollow. This is a day to mourn, to remember, and to ask those veterans who survived the maelstrom to share, reflect and think not of the glory of battle but of the colossal tragedy. And since no one is alive from those days in 1918, it is left to those of us who succeed them to learn from the lessons of history, instead of allowing the vainglorious in places of power to repeat that history.