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Remembrance Day 2010

A field of poppies

In the UK, Remembrance Day rarely falls upon a Saturday or Sunday and most people are at work on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and having a march or service on the wrong day to commemorate the anniversary of the Great War was something that used to annoy my grandfather who had served as a Corporal in the Northumberland Fusiliers.
Kitchener's exhortation; your country needs you

The recruitment drive, exemplified by that iconic poster “Your country needs you!” must have struck a note, for my grandfather joined the Territorials at 16 but later ended up at St Julien, Ypres.  My grandfather, who later became a master glazier and leaded light maker who worked on major projects like Liverpool cathedral was not keen on talking about the war.  He had been badly wounded and nearly lost a leg at St Julien.

Apparently, this was not so bad – the true horror was learning that not only had all his friends and comrades been killed on that day but shortly afterwards, the same fate befell the doctor who had saved his leg.

My grandfather used to say that remembering wasn’t the problem – the horror of it all was impossible to forget.  Even so, my grandmother told me that he had enjoyed life in the army and was among the first to try to sign up again in 1939.  His wounds made him unfit for active service but did not stop him becoming a special constable during World War 2.

Great War era crestedware: the lethal machinery of war wrought in innocent, white chinaThe problem with the Great War is that there is practically nobody left who was alive at the time of the conflict – which means it is outside the realm of living memory but WW1 is forever immortalised in the work of the war poets and ceramics from the period.  The author confesses to having a small collection of World War 1 crested china and a dozen plates, jugs and bowls with cartoons by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, whose trench humour struck a note with returning soldiers. 

My grandfather would not have approved: his mementoes were the real deal – a French officer’s sword and a polished brass shell case (dated 1916) that always sat on the hearth next to the fire. Unfortunately, these were lost 25 years ago, during a house move.

My three favourite war poems
If the war poem's roots can be traced back to Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, the genre really came of age with the advent of the Great War. There had been poets (and wars) before but warfare had been transformed from something that could be waged on horseback to mechanised carnage and failure to appreciate the need to adapt tactics to cope with that change ultimately led to huge losses on all sides. The sheer horror of mud, trenches, barbed wire and those bleak shattered landscapes reshaped by endless bombardments and the relentless shrieking of shells overhead inspired poets and artists to express themselves in dramatic and novel ways.

For the fallen
J.L Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

In Flanders fields
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.

For Johnny
John Pudney

Do not despair
For Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound
As Johnny underground.
Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.

Better by far
For Johnny-the-bright-star,
To keep your head,
And see his children fed.

This last poem belongs, of course, to World War 2. Not so long ago, there was a movement in the UK pressing for a move away from Remembrance Day but a wave of fresh conflicts (and new poets) means that Armistice Day will continue to be commemorated for a long time to come.

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