By Loraine Debnam
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses row on row”. These lines were written by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician, in 1915 after the death of his close friend. They have become famous all over the world as a tribute to the many soldiers who died during World War One. Although no veterans remain today, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month continues to be marked as Remembrance Day here in Canada and wearing a poppy on the lapel is a way to pay homage to all soldiers who served (and are still serving) in global conflicts.
Those who served in the Second World War are now a respected part of our senior population. They don’t often speak of their wartime experiences but when they do, it certainly brings home the incredible individual challenges and sacrifices made. My father-in-law served overseas during that time but, other than his descriptions of a prairie boy’s horrible seasick journey by boat across that Atlantic, he would never share any recollections. Although not by him, we were reminded of his courage. His messenger motorcycle was hit during the German bombing outside of London and, until he passed away, he still had the plate in the side of his head from the dreadful shrapnel injury he sustained. Sometimes, when he was stressed or overtired, the site of the wound would become red and angry and his headaches would be so abysmal that the scar would actually drip blood. Grandpa lived with that most of his adult life.
On my side of the family, I recall attending a reunion where my youngest uncle (the family historian) was describing the service of one of his older brothers. I listened intently as Uncle Jeff listed off troop numbers and dates and battles. But as the topic turned to the autumn of 1944, I watched my outspoken Uncle Art become quiet and introspective and when the tale was done, I knew why. The history books describe it this way. On September 17, 1944 “an Allied attempt to outflank (the Germans) failed and survivors of an Allied airborne division which had been dropped into Holland were pinned own and trapped.” Of course, the writer couldn’t know the sounds of exploding ammunition or the smell of gun powder and blood and mud. Or the feeling of overpowering helplessness as Art tasted his own blood and dropped face down from a shot in the side of his head. He laid there in the mire for two days and only when they came to pick up the dead did they hear him moan and realize that he was still alive, his injury staunched by the very mud that he lay in. As Jeff continued the story of the rescue and subsequent medical care, I saw so much more in Art’s eyes. It was almost as if he didn’t want to be a survivor when so many had given their lives during that dreadful offensive. He certainly chose not to speak of it and I would never have known if his younger brother had not shared this very personal history.
World War II killed more people, destroyed more property and disrupted more lives than any other war up to that time. One would think that humans would have learned. But battles and aggression and offensives continue. I hope that I never take for granted the courage and sacrifice that our troops made so that I am able to have the wonderful life I have.
Wear your poppy this November with pride and gratitude and remembrance, I know I will.