On November 11, Canadians celebrate Remembrance Day, a legal holiday, marking the end of World War 1. Until some time ago, it was known as Armistice Day, since WW1 ended not with an unconditional German surrender but with the signing of a cease-fire. That famous cease fire took place at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of the fourth year of a war that caused horrendous losses on all sides.
Canadians remember that in 1914, their country was even more thinly populated than today. Canada had a population of some 7.2 million in 1914, or about 1.5 million families, and yet sent an expeditionary army of 420,000 to Europe, so that almost every third family had someone serving overseas. Of these 420,000, 57,000 died and 140,000 were wounded. Total casualties amounted to almost fifty per cent of all soldiers sent overseas. So the Great War directly affected every sixth home in this country. And that's what Remebrance Day is all about.
The red poppy flower became the official symbol of that sacrifice, and of subsequent sacrifices. You see people wearing paper facsimiles of it during the first week of November. Why the poppy? Well, it comes from perhaps the most famous piece of Canadian poetry, written by a young Canadian field doctor serving at the front in Flanders, in 1915.
In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, May 1915
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.
Unquestionably evocative and lyrical, it's nonetheless a bit sappy, patriotic and overly heroic. I doubt McCrae would have written it the same way by 1918. In 1915, though, it was probably impossible to foresee, much less understand, what was still to come.
Maybe it couldn't be foreseen, but Canadians really try not to forget.