I am indebted to three of my students – Maddy, Kira, and Shannon – for collaborating to write this essay, which we formally read aloud during a school Remembrance Day ceremony in 2013. As I told them at the time, our planning sessions together were as good as any committee-style work I’ve ever done – everyone thoughtful, respectful, contributing, and focused – and I remain as proud of our group effort today as I was back then.
I have only slightly revised our essay, for fluidity, to suit a print-format but have endeavoured to avoid any substantive changes.
One hundred years ago, the Dominion of Canada’s soldiers fought in the Great War. By November 1917, the Canadian Expeditionary Force had been in Europe for over three years, staying one more year and sacrificing their safety and their lives for their country on behalf of the British Empire.
What is sacrifice? Sacrifice is soldiers seeing past terror on the battlefield, placing themselves into vulnerability, and giving themselves on our behalf. Each year on November 11, Remembrance Day in Canada, we recognize our soldiers by wearing a poppy over our hearts. Why a poppy is more well-known, yet since its adoption in 1921, how the symbolic pin has remained potent is perhaps less well-considered. A century later, in such a different world, the relevance of the poppy as a way of honoring the sacrifice of wartime warrants reflection.
As time passes, the poppy’s symbolism, in and of itself, remains the same. We change – people, culture – and inevitably, as we change, our relationship with the poppy changes, too, however much or little. The poppy, the same symbol, is different for those who feel firsthand the costs of war, so many people separated, harmed, and displaced, so many lives lost. Pains of loss are felt most intensely when they occur, by those who are closest to the people involved. For those of us with no direct wartime experience, what we feel and know matters, yet it also differs. To activate a more complete appreciation, one meaningful place to which we might turn is poetry. During World War I, poetry was a common means for those with direct wartime experience to share, and to cope.
For the lover in the poem, “To His Love,” by Ivor Gurney, one particular soldier’s death has wiped out his lover’s dreams for a comfortable future. Experiencing the fresh pains of loss, she could not possibly forget her soldier or his sacrifice. The poppy we wear both honours his sacrifice and “[hides] that red wet thing,” her loss. But, because of our distance, our poppy does not hold the same raw pain as it does for her, for those who have so immediately lost their loved ones. So, if our poppies do not hold that same raw pain, why do we continue to wear them?
The poppy stays the same because of the fact that each soldier’s death remains. Again, from “To His Love,” Gurney writes, “You would not know him now…” Generations removed, do we remember who this soldier was? Would we recognize him on the street? No. “But still he died.” We may find it difficult to assess the significance of his death, here in our world, far removed by time and distance. But let us appreciate, let us remember, in that moment of a soldier’s death, how he died: “with due regard for decent taste.” A soldier dies with dignity, for his own sake, because that is all he has. He is a small blip in the universe. “But still he died,” and that will forever be. And for all who loved him, and for all he loved, we remember.
We continue to honour our soldiers, and the sacrifices of all during wartime, because of the timelessness of that sacrifice, which each one makes. Even now, removed from war, we can find reasons to remember the deaths of soldiers because the memory that remains of each soldier embodies our definition of a hero: ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances and giving themselves, perhaps giving their lives, on our behalf. When we wear their poppies, we let their deaths weigh on our present.
Let their deaths weigh on our present, and let their memories live in their stead.
“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.”