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. 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.