Deadly verses

poppy Is this the most dangerous, even despicable, poem ever? You’ll have heard it most likely at   some Remembrance Day service or Armistice Day commemoration. It’s called In Flanders Fields. John McCrae wrote it in May 1915, on the occasion of the death in battle of a friend. The poet himself died in 1918. Here’s the poem.

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.

I last heard it said aloud at our village service marking the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Some children performed it in the village hall. Overall the service was too religious for me, but I accept that as part of the cultural mores of England. I know it deters other people though, who just want to remember and respect the sacrifices made by their forbears without having to bow their heads in front of priests or ministers.

And I fully embrace the rightness of remembering. The importance of marking past sacrifice, the better to not in future waltz gleefully into new carnage. So the talk given during the service by a youth leader was perfectly pitched – vivid, poignant, educative and heartfelt. He reminded those gathered, especially the children, that those who died in Flanders Field were young people not much older than they are now, just like them, not some sepia-toned figures of myth or history book.  So far so good.

John McCrae c.1914

John McCrae c.1914. Canadian poet, physician & soldier. He wrote In Flanders Fields in memory of a fallen friend.

But then some of our children performed THAT POEM to their school friends and to the rest of us. So what’s the problem? The first two verses are fine. It’s the final exhortation to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” And then we’re warned: “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.”

So there you have it. Keep fighting or you’ll be letting down your dead comrades. Peace and resolution of conflict are relegated in importance below the need to avoid dishonouring the dead. And what better way, suggests the poem, to honour those glorious dead than to add to their number.

It’s the siren call of the dead-enders, the true believers, the last-ditchers. In their world the dead always trump the living. And the only way to free yourself of survivor’s guilt is to go over the top. So there’s no-one to lean on the brakes.

Sometimes, granted, you have to fight. But shouldn’t the main point of remembrance be to avoid making the same mistakes? To remember the awfulness of it all. To remember that the living are more important than the dead. We should respect the latter, but protect the former.

So I’m tired of hearing that poem. The story behind it is poignant. The impact has been huge. It inspired the tradition of selling and wearing poppies. But instead of “In Flanders Fields”, next year I’d prefer something by Wilfred Owen. Dulce et Decorum Est will do fine. It’s about a gas attack and its aftermath. Here’s an excerpt:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.


Filed under In the village, life, poetry

7 responses to “Deadly verses

  1. A Square Dance

    In Flanders fields in Northern France
    They’re all doing a brand new dance
    It makes you happy and out of breath
    And it’s called the Dance of Death

    Everybody stands in line
    Everybody’s feeling fine
    We’re all going to hop
    1 – 2 – 3 and over the top

    It’s the dance designed to thrill
    It’s the mustard gas quadrille
    A dance for men – girls have no say in it
    For your partner is a bayonet

    See how the dancers sway and run
    To the rhythm of the gun
    Swing your partner dos-y-doed
    All around the shells explode

    Honour your partner form a square
    Smell the burning in the air
    Over the barbed wire kicking high
    Men like shirts hung out to dry

    If you fall that’s no disgrace
    Someone else will take your place
    ‘Old soldiers never die. . .’
    . . .Only young ones

    In Flanders fields where mortars blaze
    They’re all going the latest craze
    Khaki dancers out of breath
    Doing the glorious Dance of Death
    Doing the glorious (clap, clap) Dance of Death.

    Roger McGough

  2. blackwatertown

    I feel a bit embarrassed now, choosing predictable old Wilfred Owen, but I’ve always liked him.
    So, to make up for it, I point readers towards Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire.

  3. Ian

    I prefer Tom Kettle’s ‘To my daughter Betty’,

    IN wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
    To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,
    In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
    You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
    And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
    To dice with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
    And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
    And some decry it in a knowing tone.
    So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
    And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
    Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
    Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
    But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
    And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

  4. blackwatertown

    Here’s something good on the subject of remembering the war dead, and two different Ledwidges – Francis and Frank.

  5. Here dead we lie
    Because we did not choose
    To live and shame the land
    From which we sprung.

    Life, to be sure,
    Is nothing much to lose,
    But young men think it is,
    And we were young.

    Some lines from Houseman. I find death, all death, a most interesting topic. Perhaps the most interesting. Houseman states that young men think life nothing much to lose. What about the old guys who sent them?
    I agree with you about the ‘Flanders Fields”. But are there not just causes for young men to encourage others to die? Nazism ? Fascism ? Once, against the infidel?

  6. Patrick

    I like this excerpt from “Dan – A Soldier of the Great War”….an amputee.

    The years they have passed, but come each November,
    We think of fallen friends and again we remember,
    With our poppies and medals we take the path
    Along by the Mall down to the Cenotaph.
    “They shall not grow old,” we listen and shed a few tears
    But voices come back, “What of us, you’ve stolen our years?”
    We stand to attention, the Last Post is played,
    We think once again of friends who are dead.

    There are widows in France and away ‘cross the Rhine,
    And men with dark glasses and legs just like mine.
    Was it all worth it, has it ended all wars?
    Do think carefully about that now, because
    Some day a poster will come into view,
    The man he will point, “Your country needs you.

    • The Nameless

      2002 two bodies found in excavation in Belguim, identified only as members of the Gloucesters.

      “Welcome Home Comrades” final few lines referring to their burial.

      There’s the pomp and the ceremony that you missed in the past,
      The bishop, the Bible and the Last Post, at last.

      You’ve lost decades of laughing, and family, and love,
      Was it worth it? Give us an answer, from there up above.

      Tommy 1, Tommy 2, sleep at peace neath this sod,
      Here where they’ve carved, “Known only to God”.

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