Sunday, November 11, 2012

In Flanders Fields: Remembrance Day and Veteran's Day

When I was living in The Netherlands, my wife and I took the short drive to Ypres, Belgium to observe Remembrance Day ceremonies there on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month...the moment in 1918 when World War I officially ended.

The ceremonies honor the more than 300,000 British Commonwealth soldiers who died in the five major battles that took place in the Flanders fields nearby.  The ceremony itself is conducted under the Menin Gate, located at the east edge of the city at the beginning of the road that took Allied soldiers to the front.

On this gate are inscribed the names of 54,896 commonwealth soldiers who perished in nearby battles and whose bodies were never identified or found.  Another 34,984 names of the missing are inscribed in the nearby Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.  Each Spring during planting season, many of their remains emerge in the nearby fields, 94 years after the fighting stopped.

After a parade of military representatives of commonwealth nations and appropriate remarks, red paper poppies are released through an opening at the top of the gate while a bagpiper band plays "Amazing Grace".  Watching those poppies drift slowly in the autumn wind to the haunting notes of that hymn remain one of the most moving moments of my life.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Forces wrote the poem "In Flanders Fields" in 1915.  It had long been observed that red poppies seemed to grow over soldiers graves.

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.

Lt Col John McCrae-1915

Florence Green, the last surviving veteran of World War I passed away in February of this year.  No matter what you may call it, on this day, Remembrance Day in some countries, Veterans Day in others, let us all remember the sacrifices of those who have selflessly answered the call and those who continue to do so.

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