The White Poppy

poppyNovember 11 is a day of great significance for me, one full of reflection, sorrow and gratitude. At the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month every year, I will stop whatever I am doing and mark two minutes of silence. If I am able, I will do this while I watch the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Cenotaph in Ottawa on the CBC.

I do this, in part, for deeply personal reasons. My late father served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with his sister and two brothers, during World War II. My maternal grandfather had been a groom – a soldier who cared for and managed the horses in a Guards regiment – in the Great War of 1914-1918. At that moment of silence every year, I feel connected to them, and to their friends and comrades – so many of whom never returned – across the years. I think of their pain, their loss and, yes, their courage.

Yet I also do this for profoundly social reasons. Remembrance Day, for me and for many Canadians, provides an opportunity to share a moment of communal memory. This was reinforced throughout my childhood and youth by the Remembrance Day assemblies every year. In primary and secondary school, my classmates and I would quietly file into the gymnasium for a somber service of remembrance. There principal would say a few words; there would be two minutes of fidgeting silence. Sometimes a bugler from the local cadets company would play the Last Post and the Rouse. Someone would read the Act 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.

John McCrae, 1914

John McCrae, 1914

More often than not, a fellow student with a gift for public speaking would solemnly recite “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, a Canadian Army surgeon who died at Boulogne-sur-Mer in the last year of the Great War.

 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.

We all wore red poppies pinned to our coats in the November chill because of McCrae’s famous poem. In 1918, an American educator and Red Cross volunteer named Moina Michael published a poem responding to McCrae’s exhortation to keep the faith:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With all who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders Fields we fought

The American Legion adopted the red poppy as its official symbol of remembrance two years later. The Royal Canadian Legion followed in 1921, turning it into a badge to be worn on the left lapel, next to one’s heart. Within two years, the gesture had spread to Great Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth.

The red poppy took root, as it were, amid the horror and the grief of the years following 1918. As historian Jay Winter notes in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, the personal grief of those who lost comrades, friends, lovers, sons and parents in the war became externalized in a common experience of bereavement through public mourning that defined and reinforced the postwar community. And everyone had lost someone; France lost 1.4 million soldiers to the war, Britain almost 900,000. Canada, with a population of 7 million, left the bodies of 67,000 young men in the fields of France and Flanders.

The Cenotaph in Ottawa

The Cenotaph in Ottawa

Everyone mourned and, Winter writes, the “bonds shared by those in mourning, by widows, ex-servicemen, the disabled, the young and the old alike, were expressed openly in ceremonies of collective memory.” Canadians, Americans, French and Britons met every year at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at war memorials and cenotaphs – the “empty tombs” that mark the collective memory of war throughout the Commonwealth – to remember, and to honour the promise that we will not break faith with the fallen.

The red poppy is an important part of the ritual; for many people it is the act of remembrance. When I was young, the old soldiers of the Royal Canadian Legion, many of whom were patients at the Veterans’ Hospital in nearby Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, and some of whom had even served in the trenches of 1914-1918, distributed  them at a kiosk at the local grocery store in exchange for donations to support veterans and their families. I remember well the feeling of walking up to the table with my father and dropping a quarter in the can with a combination of gratitude and pride. Most of those veterans, including my father, are gone now but the poppies remain.

red poppyI have worn a red poppy every year that I can remember. That became difficult when I moved to the United States in 2005, where the remembrance poppy is much less common. So each year, I have asked friends back home to acquire one for me from an old soldier. Each year, I pinned the poppy to my lapel a week before Remembrance Day, conscious that the symbol is unintelligible to most of the people I pass on the New York subway or the PATH Train, but satisfied that, in a small way, I have been able to maintain a connection to Canada and the historical memory of the wars of the 20th century. I have not broken faith.

Yet, at the back if my mind, I have always felt a little uncomfortable about the red poppy’s symbolism. I can still hear “In Flanders Fields” recited in my grandfather’s booming voice. I can see the poppies in my imagination, blowing gently in the wind at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Soissons, and Vimy, between thousands of crosses marking thousands of shattered corpses. And then, in my grandfather’s voice, the dead enjoin me to “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” They pass the torch to my hands and warn “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.”

Even as a child, the vengeful tone of those lines gave me pause. I felt a frisson of doubt as my grandfather’s voice turned stern and demanding. What if I do not wish to take up the quarrel, to continue the war – this cycle of violence and death? Will I have really broken faith with the fallen? Does the red poppy on my lapel signify not only my remembrance of the fallen, but an embrace of their mission, the war that destroyed them?

According to the Royal Canadian Legion, the red poppy is a “symbol of unity for those who recognize the sacrifices that were made for their freedom.” I do recognize those sacrifices – the sacrifices of my grandfather, my father, their comrades and friends – but I feel uncomfortable marking that memory alone. What of the foe? What of the young German, Austrian, Italian and Japanese men? I condemn their leaders and generals – the starched shirts and ribbon merchants who sent millions of young men to their deaths in two world wars – but not the men themselves. Whether they were patriotic volunteers like my father who answered their countries’ call or, more likely, conscripts compelled to take up arms by their governments, they fell just the same.

And what of the civilians? Indeed, if the history of 20th century is war is about anything, it is about how it spilled over from the battlefield to every corner of human life. Throughout the last century, the “front line,” as the location of the fighting and dying was once called, ceased to exist. The swath of death began to fall everywhere, with little regard for whether or not its victims wore uniforms or carried arms.

Almost 60 percent of the 17 million dead of the First World War were soldiers, sailors and airmen. They were volunteers and conscripts, hardened professional soldiers and inexperienced, idealistic young men whose bodies littered the landscape of Europe from the Somme to Passchendale, to Tannenberg Forest and the mountain passes at Caporetto. Yet 10 million dead soldiers, and 20 million survivors whose bodies had been shattered by bullets, artillery shells and poison gas were only part of the horror. The war left 7 million noncombatants dead as long range guns launched high explosive shells 80 miles behind the lines, as aircraft dropped bombs on city streets… and as famine and disease stalked the “home front” in London, Paris, St. Petersburg and Berlin.

When the killing resumed in 1939, after an exhausted world spent two decades licking its wounds and produced a new generation of young men to die in sufficient numbers, new practices and technologies of killing had erased the line that separated the front from the home front. Conservative estimates put the butcher’s bill of the Second World War at 60 million dead, but it may have been much higher. And of those dead, the majority – 38 million – were civilians. They died starving on the streets of Leningrad, in the rubble of Dresden and the London Blitz. Ten million died in Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps 100,000 died in an instant in Hiroshima.

The trend has only accelerated since 1945. Wars are no longer fought between armies, but by armies against civilians. Even in our “clean” wars and “surgical strikes,” the “collateral damage” of civilian casualties always outnumber the combatant casualties. What was the “collateral damage” of the Vietnam War? Perhaps five million Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian civilians – a ratio of five noncombatants to every military death – after you tally up the corpses in the killing fields and bomb craters. How many civilians are dying today in an unending war as American robotic killing machines fire missiles at targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan?

The dead are no longer the young men – our young men, or their young men, it doesn’t really matter – who exhort us to take up their cause, but everyone. How do we mark their meimories. How do we keep faith?

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

One of the lessons I learned from my father is that violence is always a failure of humanity and that war is wrong. My father was proud of his service in the RCAF. He had every right to be. I am proud of my father, of his courage, his strength and his sacrifice. He was a brave man who did his duty when called… Yet he was troubled by the memory of what he had been called upon to do.

He first intimated this to me in 1992, as we discussed the controversy surrounding the airing of Brian McKenna’s documentary series The Valour and the Horror. McKenna had come under a firestorm of criticism from veterans’ groups – including the Royal Canadian Legion – for his depiction of the RAF/RCAF bombing campaign over Nazi Germany as a bloody combination of homicidal mania and incompetence. Yet, after my father had watched it, he grimly noted that the documentary had captured “what it really was like… for me.”

I always made a point of calling my father on Remembrance Day. On our last Remembrance Day we talked about what it was like to come home as the sole survivor from his Lancaster bomber crew. “That pains me,” he said, remembering his boyhood friend Mark Goldwater and skipper Robert Roth. “We were all so close. It didn’t really strike me until I got home after the war. There was so much death.” After a short pause, he continued, “I always have to remind myself that I was part of that, too. I was there to help drop bombs on people,” he said. “They told us that we were bombing a munitions factory, but we were bombing people. That’s something I always have to remember.”

I still wear a red poppy on my overcoat. It’s not a new one. In fact, it is the last red poppy that I will ever have. I wear it for my father, my grandfather and their comrades and friends because the symbol was important to them. But this year, I have begun to wear the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union on my jacket lapel as I teach and go about my day. I wear it closer to my heart. I bought a package of ten this year, and I will do this every year for the rest of my life.

There has been considerable controversy in Canada over the white poppy. The Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, Julian Fantino, has called them “offensive.” He opines that “Remembrance Day is about paying tribute to the valour and courage of those who set the very foundation of the freedoms that makes our country great.” Matt Gurney, writing in the National Post agrees. I can only assume that he has not read McCrae’s poem to the end. Either way, they both suggest that I am somehow dishonouring my father and grandfather. I take profound offense to that.

For me, the white poppy symbolizes remembrance of all wars, and all the death that those wars have produced. It does not bind me to a promise to take up any quarrel and continue the cycle of war. Indeed, it is in committing myself to peace that I do the greatest honour to the courage and sacrifice of my father, my grandfather and their comrades.

By wearing the white poppy, I remember. I remember the death and destruction visited on our young men on the battlefield, on their young men on the battlefield, and on the men, women and children on the battlefields of what was once called the “home front.” It is how I have chosen to enact a remembrance of the cost of all wars and honour the memory and hope of my father, my grandfather and their comrades that their wars would be the last war. The white poppy represents the hope for a time when we will beat our “swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

5 thoughts on “The White Poppy

  1. My grandfather also flew in a Lancaster squadron during the second world war. Unfortunately I never really got to speak to him about it before he passed away, but then he wasn’t the type to bring up such memories anyway.
    We all have our personal interpretations of the poppy. For me the red poppy is purely to commemorate the sacrifice people made during the wars. It doesn’t carry any other meaning, so I will wear it with pride, just as you will wear your white poppy with pride.

  2. Minister Fantino is also the one now who is asking a Committee of Parliament to tell him what duty the Government has towards Veterans. Strange question as if it needed explaining. Government lawyers have proposed that the Government has no long lasting duty towards Veterans.

  3. Pingback: Autumn Leaves | The Undefended Border

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