Close to ninety years ago, both of my grandfathers were in Belgium, having traveled halfway across the world (from Quebec and Alberta) to join a great army of men fighting to the death to capture towns they’d never heard of for causes they weren’t really sure of. Like any war before or since, the ultimate motivations behind the conflict were money, land, and power; and as in any war before or since, the men actually doing the killing and dying would tell you they were fighting for their countries.
Both my grandfathers were in the 1st Canadian Division and fought in the Second Battle of Ypres
, which stands to this day as one of the most horrific events in human warfare. It was during this action that the Kaiser’s army decided to experiment with chemical warfare, spreading a blanket of poisonous gas over the Allied positions. This was before soldiers were issued gas masks; the best they could do was to put a cloth over their noses and mouths. If that worked, then they had two choices; stay down in the trench until the gas killed them, or pop their heads up to breathe in the thick of rifle and artillery fire. My grandfathers were lucky; they made it back relatively scathed, and so made it possible for me to type these words to you today.
I wish I knew more than I do about my grandfathers’ experiences, but what little I know has been gleaned at second or third hand and mostly forgotten since childhood. I know that Grandpa Feunoir spent some time buried alive, I think in a trench collapse. I wonder if it was during the gas attacks? If so, ironically, being buried probably saved his life. Very counterintuitive.
Today’s the day, in Canada, when we all put plastic poppies on our lapels in honour of those long-ago dead. The poppies allude to the poem by our countryman, Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD, who tended to the casualties of that terrible battle. Sitting by the cemetery in Flanders where the men he couldn’t save resided, he wrote:
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 remember when I was young, that poem would be inescapable on Remembrance Day. I remember watching the broadcasts from Parliament Hill, old men standing in the shadow of the Peace Tower
, wrapped up in thick coats and fur hats, saluting, little spots of red from the plastic poppies on their chests. I remember thinking that Remembrance Day was literal for them, but never could be for me. I don’t suppose there were many, or maybe even any, of those old men on Parliament Hill today. Even the veterans of the Second World War (once they discovered they had to number them lest they lose track and have to start over) are getting scarce. So I do my best, on behalf of their vanished numbers, to remember what I can.
Every year I drink a toast, with the best whiskey to hand. I’m out of scotch right now, so tonight it’ll be 10 year Canadian Club Reserve (Mama Dog offered her Maker’s Mark, but, well, bourbon’s for ladies and Americans, of which she is both and I am neither). Usually I say: “This is for all the poor bastards who died in foreign wars.” Tonight I’ll be thinking too of the poor bastards who continue to die for empires. I’m sure most of the men dying in Iraq right now believe sincerely that the sacrifice they make is for their country, and may whatever deity they might believe in bless them for that. I’m nobody to say that what they think they’re fighting for is any less relevant than what they probably are fighting for. My grandfathers likely thought they were fighting to preserve freedom from the Hun, and like Lt. Col. McCrae, MD, they doubtless would have considered any failure of effort on their part to be an unforgivable insult to the men who’d died before them. Odd, though, that they should be pulled from their homes at the order of distant Colonial masters to preserve their freedom. Still, they kept the Kaiser from occupying Bloor Street. Ultimately, what they helped achieve was the transfer of possessions from one set of colonial powers to another. It took the second go-around to finish breaking the backs of those old Empires. I suppose we can be thankful (as we’re remembering), that like the crowds of old men on Parliament Hill, at least the wars are getting smaller.