PHOTOS: In Flanders Fields? The reality of the Great war’s battlefields: squalor, incompetence, mechanized industrial death. Below: John McCrae, and a Great War poet still worth reading, Wilfred Owen.

A civilization that forgets its poetry is barely worthy of the name.

Like fiction and unlike non-fiction, poetry is how a culture’s most profound truths are told. Unlike fiction, poetry does this vital work with great economy of words.

That is why all great civilizations honour their great poets. Those that forget their poetry – or reduce it to a cheap trinket – are already in decline.

Probably the best-known poem in Canada – perhaps the only well-known poem in Canada nowadays – is In Flanders Fields, written by Dr. John McCrae, a surgeon in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium in the spring of 1915, to memorialize a friend who died in the fighting. It was first published 100 years ago this Dec. 8. This is the poem that is read by school kids every Nov. 11, Remembrance Day.

The trouble is, to be blunt, it is not really a very good poem. It is excessively sentimental. It is jingoistic. The bloody squalor from which it arose has been sanitized, by the poet and by time and propaganda.

Dr. McCrae seems to have recognized immediately there was something wrong with In Flanders Fields. At any rate, legend has it he crumpled it up and tossed it away. But, as history sometimes demands, it was retrieved.

The first five lines are a faint reminder of the situation faced by the Canadians in Flanders in 1915. They had just withstood the mighty hammer of the German Army, including gas attacks that left soldiers drowning in chlorine. This part of Belgium was the crucible where, our national myth has it with some justice, the Canadian nation was forged. But the ineptitude of leadership, and the mechanized industrial-scale slaughter into which the troops were fed has been scrubbed up and polished:

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.

The next four sentimental lines are likely the reason for the poem’s popular success, offering the living a way to remember their dead:

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.

The last six lines are pure jingo, a recruiting tool to enlist the working class of the British Empire in a war that, on both sides, did not advance their interests a muddy, bloody foot:

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.

Do the children who are urged nowadays with such high zest to read this aloud understand the foe with whom we are entreated to fight on is now our esteemed NATO ally? I wonder what the dead from 100 years ago make of this, sleepless as they are said to be?

We Canadians have had other wars since, some of which have been as pointless and incompetently led as the Great War, and which have served the same interests as architects of the Great War set out to serve. It was nearly their undoing, but they are with us still.

In Flanders Fields became a recruiting tool. Its message as the Great War still raged, and its message still, is the old lie: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” as Horace put it. Which is to say, too often, it is sweet and fitting to die for the interests of the class that runs one’s country, or so they would like you to imagine.

Maybe now – at the end of the most jingoistic decade in Canadian history since the end of the Second World War, which followed that first one quick enough – would be a worthy time to remember that better poetry sprang up in English from the bloody fields of Flanders.

Siegfried Sassoon? Wilfred Owen?

Perhaps we should try to remedy this some Remembrance Day soon. No harm and some good would come asking Canadian school children to memorize something like the English poet Wilfred Owen’s words below, well known when I was a lad but apparently unwisely mostly forgotten now. It would be a fitting and honourable tribute to the dead in Canada’s wars:

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time, 

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.— 

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, 

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 

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.

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    1. Millions of Canadians, including myself, find it very easy to honour the dead and the living without celebrating/glorifying war.
      Have there been no “just” wars? Were Canadians and other nations supposed to jsit back and let Hitler continue to take over country after country?

  1. Well said David.

    This obscene celebration of war, now mostly the latest Persian theatre, is truly disgusting.
    Why in all that is holy are we in the middle east? To boost the narcissistic big-boy dreams of yet another ignorant, small-minded and mean-spirited national leader and the profits of a few armaments corporations; that’s why!

    Great sadness and sympathy for the dupes who went and got themselves shot up and killed, or worse, left alive with all the monstrous wounds of war. But not celebration for some bullshyte national endevour.

  2. Sorry, but on this we cannot agree David. To discourage the iconic poem In Flanders Fields, is an affront to Remembrance Day itself. I learned it as a child, can recite it to this day and I always will associate it with November 11. I cannot even imagine any child reciting the example by Owen, never mind understanding it. Give me sentiment over bloody squalor every time. I may be old-fashioned, but am happily so.

  3. After listening to Dan Carlin’s 20 hour podcast on ww1 that he created over two years of work, I agree that Flanders Fields bears no resemblance to WW1, and it’s principle lesson: that the elites will send men to die in the millions for the most flimsy causes, and that modern warfare can create hell on Earth.

  4. So what if it isn’t a good poem? But then again, what makes a good poem is entirely subjective anyway. It was a reflection of the time. I see no need to be critical of it. It had been used to help us remember the sacrifices that were made for our freedom. That is much more important than if it is a “good” poem or not.

  5. I don’t know… One encouraging fact that cannot be denied, is that for Canadians at least, the carnage of war has declined since Dr McRae pencilled his famous lines. Canada lost somewhere in the vicinity of 68,000 killed in the Great War, out of a population of about 7-8 million or so. Two decades later, in the Second World War, we lost 47,000 from a population of about 11.5 million. In Korea, 516 were killed, and our population was 14 million, while in Afghanistan, out of a total of over 31 million Canadians, only 159 have been lost. More Canadians were killed in a single day during WW I than in all of the Afghan conflict, and often more than in the entire Korean War as well.

    Also, contrast our losses in the two World Wars to those of the Americans in Vietnam, which they see as they major military trauma of our time. There are about 27,000 or so names on the Wall in Washington, DC; but as a proportion of the entire population of that country, is is a minuscule fraction of our nation’s sacrifices in the 20th century.

    I think what we are seeing lately is more limited acceptance of the cost of war. We would never accept the loss of 300,000 service men and women today, which would be about what we would lose if our Great War losses were scaled up to the current Canadian population. As for the poem, I think it is a reflection of its time, and should be taken in that context.

  6. Poems, as you note, David, can tell profound truths, but they are not static. For post-war audiences, the “foe” became the inhumanity of the battlefield, and the “faith” we keep is the belief in peace, lest we forget the consequences of militarism unleashed on a global scale.

    (There’s another famous — sacrilegious, perhaps — interpretation of McCrae’s poem, where the foe turns out to be the Toronto Maple Leafs. Breaking faith in that context means missing the playoffs.)

    Dulce et Decorum Est is better literature. Both poems, however, offer imagery based on similar (indeed nearly universal in the time period) themes: the virility of youth perverted by sudden death, and the natural world obliterated by the technology of mass murder.

    Just because it is not the best poem, I don’t think In Flanders Fields is a failure. Blood gargling from froth-corrupted lungs might not be the most appropriate imagery for grade two students. Perhaps McRae can be a gateway to Owen, Sassoon, Brittain, Graves and the other poets who captured the gritty of the war — as well as an introduction to Canadian works such as Urquhart’s Stone Carvers and Findley’s The Wars.

  7. Well said, David. To Don, who says ‘Give me sentiment over bloody squalor every time. I may be old-fashioned, but am happily so.’, is that not the thinking that has driven men to rush off to war, blind to the realities, since conflict began? The bitter truth of WW1 is that millions, terribly led, died for nothing of any consequence at all. ‘In Flanders Fields’ asks more to do the same. Propaganda, the same thing that brought Hitler to power.

  8. I also agree with David about replacing this poem with something else that would make future children think about the horrors of war while remembering the sacrifices of our fallen veterans. I think that this poem is more difficult to memorize than perhaps “In Flanders Field”, but then again, they would be up to the challenge. I frankly have some difficulties in the opposition to any proposed changes that others might propose. I am bothered that those who want to wear white poppies shouldn’t be allowed to. My co-worker was upset about the opposition to the way she wore her poppies when her children were small(she wore them in an manner so the poppies wouldn’t stab them). I think we should remember all of the aspects of war and have a better understanding of our country’s role in it.

  9. Green Fields of France is a fine poem put to music. Add in a few photos of the era and you’ve got a dose of reality. The following video clearly depicts France in 1915,.Three generations since have suffered: I’ll take bloody squalor over sentiment.

  10. During WWII the CBC were pioneers on reporting from the front lines. Here is CBC reporter Mathew Halton reporting from the Moro River front in December 8, 1943 during the Italian campaign. What makes this recording poignant is the fact my dad was present while this battle was taking place.

    Many years later he said he was nearly killed here -maybe on that day. If that had happened I wouldn’t be here today -at least not in my present DNA format.

  11. A thoughtful piece, David, and I appreciate it (as a CO during Vietnam with a lifelong commitment to peace). Of course, I can hear the other voices who have commented here. War is bloody squalor, and it also contains sacrifice worth honouring. Sometimes war may be necessary, but it is always evil. In a brief paragraph I can only thank you for a stimulating contribution to remembering.

    1. Thank you for your comments and activism during the Vietnam War. It is true that is is sometimes necessary, but it always evil and it is most destructive behavior of human beings. I think we all need to think about our own nation’s role in warfare and in the world. The good news is that the new Liberal government wants to change Canada’s role to a more constructive one.

  12. Ever since I was a little kid and learned “In Flanders Fields” in school, I’ve had problems with the “Take up our quarrel…” bit. It never seemed to fit with the rest, as if it had been tacked on afterwards. I heard (somewhere) that McCrae had written the first two parts on the battlefield and had thrown the poem down. It was retrieved by someone (?) and finished at a later time.

    “Dulce et decorum est” is much more realistic and unutterably sad.

    In memory of an uncle I never had a chance to meet, Gerald Smith, RCNVR, who died when the HMCS Shawinigan was sunk by a German submarine between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in November 1944. My mother’s family didn’t think it was very “dulce and decorum”. I believe that it was the only Canadian naval vessel to go down with all hands during the Second World War.

  13. As it happens, “In Flanders Fields,” is a very good poem, probably one of the best ever written by a Canadian. It doesn’t follow, though, that McCrae was a good poet. This is one of his very few anthologizable pieces. Nowadays, some of the sentiments are probably “politically incorrect,” but, of course, that has nothing to do with its value as poetry. One reason that it is good, is that McCrae was able to put his scattered thoughts into a very tight form (a French form, as it happens!) the Rondeau. Whereas in “Dulce et decorum” Owen’s scattered thoughts remain scattered. While nowadays we have come more to appreciate “staring into the abyss”, even if it is in genre form like “The Maltese Falcon,” it doesn’t follow that this is the “right” way to look at things. In short, mixing politics (ideology) and poetry (literature) is not a particularly good idea. If you don’t think so, try to imagine a poem by Margaret Atwood, entitled “In Flanders Fields.”

  14. I couldn’t agree with the general sentiment of your article or your disdain for McCrea’s poem more. One year when I was teaching English at Archbishop MacDonald High School I took it upon myself to put a peace spin on the Remembrance Day celebration, including the reading of Dulce et Decorum. The presentation was very well received and I was asked for the text and references for my presentation.
    The following year, we had an actively serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces recount his experiences on the battlefield and listened to him talk about pride and commitment and glory and bravery . . .. Thanks to the emphasis and millions of dollars that our previous government committed to the militarization of the populace, remembrance has taken a back seat to selective memory and a diet of lotus leaves.

  15. Thanks for this.

    I’m always troubled by Remembrance Day – I feel it is important to honour those who fought, without honouring that which they fought for, because for the most part, it’s all just a bloody and obscene waste. I’ve been reading a lot, today, about us being free because of the sacrifices of our soldiers, and wondering just how true that is – not very, I strongly suspect.

    But do I want some solemn remembrance of all those dead boys? Sure do.

    As for the poem, I think it would be all right without that dreadful last stanza.

  16. There isn’t a person alive in Canada who does not know the intense depravity of what WWI trench warfare entailed. This fact is not glossed over by our education system, nor the Legion who champions this remembrance. When this poem is taught and read, it is with a view on the sadness at the lives lost. Remembrance Day services are a somber affair lamenting the loss inherent in all warfare, not a pep rally for the military industrial complex.

    You refuse to see this great poem in how it is currently understood, and have a low view of the Canadian public if you somehow feel we are being brainwashed by a few lines. It would be a rare eccentric who believes “Take up the quarrel with the foe” continues to mean the Imperial German Army. I am going to go out onto a limb and say that for the vast majority of people, the “foe” is tyranny and any power that seeks to take away people’s freedoms. You will have to explain to me how this is a bad thing.

    I especially take offence at “Do the children who are urged nowadays with such high zest to read this aloud understand the foe with whom we are entreated to fight on is now our esteemed NATO ally?” Are we to not make friends with our former enemies? In my books, the transition of the nation of Germany from a vehicle for a genocidal tyrant into a liberal democracy is one the biggest success stories of the 20th century. Is your sarcasm directed towards NATO ( a voluntary alliance of civil societies that kept the homicidal maniac Stalin in check) or directed towards the German people, (who are in process of taking into their homes over 500 000 Syrian refugees)?

    I may be reading too much into this post. Perhaps you simply don’t like the poem because it doesn’t conform to the self-appointed literary elite’s definition of what constitutes quality, and resent that something so poorly written is enjoyed and appreciated by the common masses.

  17. Hello David:
    Following up the idea that McCrae may have done this better than, say, Margaret Atwood. Best, Kevin

    (As it Might Have Been Written by Margaret Atwood)

    We shall always be sisters,
    Though you will never meet me.
    I drowned myself on the eleventh hour,
    Of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month…
    This was a precautionary measure.
    Environmental purity, national sovereignty,
    Feminist philosophy unite us… in life, in death.
    For you, as once I was,
    A schoolgirl, on Remembrance Day,
    During the recital of “In Flanders Fields”
    (The uber-male, militaristic, imperialistic chanting)
    You stabbed yourself repeatedly with the pin of your poppy,
    A symbol of patriarchal repression;
    But the blood so shed re-symbolized the act
    Into a tableau (barren but effective) of the monthly bloodshed
    Which Nature wreaks upon the biologically oppressed.
    Freedom… Freedom… from McCrae’s desecration
    We seek in death… vainly in life.
    It is not sweet… it is not decorous
    To suffer the onslaught of the male propulsive weapon.
    To cite “In Flanders Fields?” To cite a song of rape
    Of female subjection through male subjugation
    Freedom…. Freedom… won only through heroic death;
    To you, O unknown sisters, we throw the torch.
    A flame to burn the very inwards of patriarchy.
    That is all for now.

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