If I should die, think only this of me
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
The Soldier by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
This post, as a reminder that Armistice Day, or Poppy Day, as you call it in England, is not a date the meaning of which everyone knows.
You’d be surprised at the answers some might give to the question: “What does it celebrate?’’ especially in my country, France.
Apart from the various veterans, historians, and of course politicians, few people in France will take the time to think of the meaning of the date. On November 11, of course, there will be ceremonies, but before and after that, it will be radio silence again - whereas, in Britain, in Canada and in the US, you do much more than just talk about it. It is amazing to the rest of the world to see the crowds of people marching all over the place, on the tube, on the streets, appearing on TV, and in public, wearing a poppy on their lapels. Of course every one of you knows where the idea came from, but just in case some passing foreign visitor might wish to know, here is the information:
At the origin of the tradition, there was a poem, In Flanders Fields, written by John Mc Crae a Canadian physician and poet, himself a soldier in WW1. Note that it was meant to encourage the soldiers to go on fighting for freedom.
Even though, originally the celebration was supposed to honour the memory of the dead of WW1, (and the donations meant to help the survivors) it now celebrates all the victims of the ensuing conflicts, and unfortunately, there have been many since 1918.
Not all poets were as… optimistic as John Mc Crae. Siegfried Sassoon, for one, was able to conciliate publicly a pacifist’s and a fighter’s stand, and to survive the Great War, contrary to Wilfred Owen,whose poems tell so stunningly of the small lies, the blindness of all those who were not up on the front, and the horror of dying at twenty something, were it for one’s country. In this poem in particular:
Even though Owen was shell-shocked and hospitalized, he went back to the front, where he was killed a week before this very Armistice Day that we’ll be celebrating this week.
Here is a poem by Sassoon, taken from this site.
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
The words of all those poems still ring to our ears.
To honour their authors again and again, let us try not to drown our emotion in the cart of the supermarket on November 11, maybe we could, instead, answer the little children’s questions, and maybe also remember for a minute those poets who never had the time to feed on the beauty of any poppies, since they found themselves pushing up the daisies, early, far too early.