Recently I visited the site in Flanders where John McCrae wrote the famouns pomen In Flanders Fields. It is at the Essex Farm Aid Station only a few kilometres from Ieper (aka Ypres).
I visited on a cold, muddy and miserable day. The concrete bunker where the medicos triaged the wounded was not far from the various battlefields of the Ypres Salient. The site is also a cemetery now – Essex Farm Cemetery – as those who expired were buried in the field next to the aid station.
But the most telling thing for me was the tiny space that so many men fought and died over. The Ypres Salient was about 20 km by 6 km and you can stand on one of the few ridges in the area and see much of the disputed territory that was fought back and forth over between 1914 and 1918.
McCrae’s poem is moving – especially with the backstory of his inspiration at the death of his friend. But the sad truth is that some poetry was a mechanism for supporting the war and encouraging more men to sign up to fight. To become mere names upon a wall (like the Menin Gate) rather than to live, to create and know joy or peace.
I find the final sentiments of his poem not to my taste:
“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.”
Source: In Flanders Fields
More to my taste – having seen the utter waste and destruction of World War One – is Wilfrid Owen’s pungent poem:
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. ”
Source: Dulce et Decorum Est
Simply because the wars we fight now are not on the same grand scale as World War One it does not mean that individual and societal human suffering is any less. Afghanistan, Iraq show us the same futility and waste of humanity, and the pain and suffering will reverberate into future generations in ways of which we cannot yet count the cost.
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