In Flanders Fields: The reality of the Great war’s battlefields: squalor, incompetence, mechanized industrial death (Photo: Public Archives of Canada).

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.

Dr. John McCrae, surgeon in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Second Battle of Ypres (Photo: Public Domain).

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. 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?

Poet Wilfred Owen (Photo: Public Domain).

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 period 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.


This post first appeared in this space on Nov. 11, 2015. 

Join the Conversation


  1. Art also has a place. “For what” by Fred Varley makes an important statement about “The Great War”.

  2. Thank you David for this thoughtful and relevant piece. Sassoon and Owen did indeed describe the horrors of World War One.
    Youtube has very moving readings of Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est spoken by Christopher Eccleston, Owen’s Anthem For Doomed spoken by Sean Bean, and Sassoon’s Does It Matter? uploaded by Blue Sky Motivation. The same platform shows the excellent BBC television offering of Days Of Hope Part 1 directed by Ken Loach.

  3. David, FYI

    Had intended the youtube information for you and your readers. Unfortunately am unable to add links which would make for easier access. If you feel it appropriate would please consider doing so? Thanks

    which would make for simple access. If you feel it appropriate please add

  4. Canada and warfare have a complicated history. The First World War, more than the Second, is widely seen both as one of this country’s greatest national traumas, since we lost a far greater proportion of our then-tiny population over its four years than we did over the six years of WW II — and, at the same time, the forge upon which a distinct Canadian nationality was formed.

    In terms of the war’s justification, however, there was less justification for Canadian involvement than the 1939-45 conflict. Great Britain and its Empire entered the war ostensibly in response to Imperial Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality as the Schlieffen Plan carried its vast armies into northern France around the Maginot Line. But the outbreak of war on the Continent was the culmination of a decade or more of nationalistic brinkmanship between the great powers — France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia — that allowed a petty Balkans quarrel to conflagrate into “the war to end all wars” … which, sadly, it also didn’t do. In fact, it can be validly argued that the outcome of the First World War did a lot to sow the seeds of what would 21 years later become the Second.

    So, can we honour the troops and their sacrifice, while also deploring the cause for which they fought as insufficient justification for the cost? The Canadian Corps on the Western Front made Canada a nation in its own right, instead of just a glorified colony of the British Empire. But Canada had no national interest to protect when war broke out, and we entered the war automatically as a part of the British Empire.

    The Second World War at least had the fact that it was a just war fought to defeat Nazism, although there is good evidence that had the major powers of the latter half of the 1930s acted sooner against Hitler’s aggression, he might have been stopped with far less investment of blood and treasure than it eventually took after September 1939. So, while much of the blame for that war can be ascribed to the diplomatic naivete, cowardice and incompetence of the British and French governments as Hitler pursued his bloodless conquests of country after country until he crossed that line in the sand along the Polish border, at least the moral issues at stake were far less ambiguous than in 1914-18.

    Today, people say “support the troops”. Sure, but do we support the politicians that sent them? Are they fighting for the right reason? If not, do we spit on them the way returning Vietnam vets were spat on in the US? Or do we lay the blame where it belongs, at the civilian leaders who dispatched them on their missions? [Refer here to Black Sabbath’s opening track on their 1970 second album, Paranoid – “War Pigs”: “politicians hide themselves away/they only started the war/why should they go out to fight/they leave that all to the poor”]

    One more point: I can’t think of one single, solitary instance when two genuine democracies fought each other in armed conflict. One party to a war is almost universally a dictatorship or autocracy of some sort or another. So, democracy is clearly the greatest force for peace in the world.

    1. I am intrigued by the willingness of people to characterize the Second World War as a “just war” that was fought to defeat Nazism, somehow unique in the annals of human conflict from the time of the Battle of Megiddo in 1479 BC (E,lol).
      Nazism was greatly admired by the establishment of the Anglo-American plutocracy, and although representing an extreme form of capitalism, with all the exploitation, racism and violence that entails, it wasn’t that much out of step with the general character of it’s rivals in the UK and the US. The complete absence of any discussion of the shenanigans of the Polish military dictatorship in the years preceding September, 1939, produces a deafening silence, let alone the deal-making between the various powers in that period. Funny that the Molotov-Ribbentrop contract remains the ne plus ultra Deal of the Devils, whilst the wide array of Columbia House Record Club papers signed between the various gangsters have disappeared into the ether. Hitler himself was convinced that his 1935 treaty with the UK represented the underpinnings of a long-term alliance with the British Empire. (perfidious Albion indeed)
      The United States and the United Kingdom both profess to be democracies, and yet the 2003 invasion of Iraq stands as the single most egregious crime against humanity committed outside of Africa in this century. While the Nuremberg trials were absurd victor’s justice, the principle that aggressive war was the supreme crime, and the crime for which the leading Nazis who weren’t rolled into the CIA were hung after Nuremberg, remains sound. And the “democracies” have a murder rap sheet, including the destruction of 20% of the North Korean population by aerial bombardment in the 1950-53 period, that puts them in the rarified company of Wayne Gretzky in terms of unparalleled achievement.
      The rest of this “nation-building” garbage about the First World War is just that. The idea that fighting a European War that was in essence the last-ditch effort of the British Empire to prevent the ascendence of Germany as an economic rival on the Eurasian land-mass, comes from the realm of Star Wars and Marvel comics. Our “nation” is that of a settler-colonial state that exists as a comprador for the US-Anglo international financial empire, despite what TeeVee tells you.

    2. One of the greatest lies in history is that about the folly of western powers not “intervening” against Hitler. Another way to say it is western treasure was the very reason for Hitler’s rise to power, an attack dog against socialism they thought they could control.

      Furthermore, if a population must be manipulated into war, how can one say that society is democratic?

      There is no just war. It is, as Smedley Butler famously said, the greatest of all rackets.

    3. It has often seemed to me that the phrase “support our troops” is often used to try to bully civilians into falling in line behind an unjust, unnecessary conflict (I don’t think you’re using it that way here, it’s just that today is a really good day for this conversation). On the one hand, I would feel like an idiot and an ungrateful ass hat to fail to acknowledge and remember the suffering and sacrifices of those who studied war so that I could study philosophy. On the other hand, I feel a keen obligation to ensure that we actually learn from the history of mostly useless, mostly immoral wars politicians in the west have attempted and sometimes succeeded in embroiling us in.

      To that end, I feel obligated to say that our troops are being let down by their flag officers and the politicians who give them their orders. I am concerned that there appears to be a couple of cancers within our troops. I refer to the active, documented, ongoing, and insufficiently opposed attempts by far right extremists to infiltrate our armed forces, reserves, and police force, and to a senior leadership that does not seem to understand the difference between “no” and “yes, sir.” They seem to have been knowingly enabled by politicians who appear to have been aware there is a problem for years, but had mostly contended themselves with investigations that produce easily ignored recommendations.

      I am grateful for the service of those who served. I think that taking this opportunity to talk about ways that we, as civilians, citizens and voters, can really support the troops, instead of getting tricked and/or bullied into jingoistic dogma, is more meaningful than the empty, performative slogans our politicians will spend the day regurgitating.

      We ought to take better care of our veterans. The “social contact” offered to our troops in return for their sacrifice and suffering ought to be made more explicit and ironclad. We ought to be making large investments in mental health, and ensuring that soldiers, cops and first responders always have free and timely access. We should have better support for their spouses, who endure very specific hardships. The opportunity to serve should be available to all citizens who wish to serve in good faith, and there ought to be better mechanisms to weed out people who want to get paid to learn to make bombs. Finally, female soldiers shouldn’t have to face an extraordinary increase to their likelihood of being sexually assaulted as if it is just an expected consequence of her choice to serve, and there ought to be better processes created so that when soldiers of any rank or gender commit sexual misconduct, they face consequences for their actions.

      To all who served: thank you so, so much, and I am truly sorry that we, as citizens, have not had your back as well as we might have.

  5. Yeah it’s probably time to retire that poem that encourages people to go marching off to war to avenge their fallen comrades. Hopefully the only call of duty the current crop of youngsters will hear will be via the computer screen.

    On a somewhat related note, the Ottawa Citizen last week was reporting on allegations that Canadian troops were training Ukrainian troops with strong links to neo-Nazism. The troops in question is the infamous Azov Battalion which has made no secret of admiration of Hitler and Ukrainian nationalists who active collaborated with the Nazis.

    A few days earlier the same newspaper reported that Canadian officials met with leaders of the Azov Battalion in 2018, had their pictures taken which were in turn used by Azov’s social media pages, quoting Canadian officials expressing “hopes for further fruitful co-operation.”

    Anyway, a military review is coming and the military PR department is scrambling to come up with a defence. If this becomes a “thing” expect Chrystia Freeland to starting screaming in the House of Commons that this is just a Russian disinformation campaign which has become the standard response.

    1. Both the conservatives and the liberals have been alleged to have links to the OUN-B, it’s not terribly shocking we are training AZOV if you think of it that way.

    2. I would the offer the following in response.
      When the Russian allied forces had pushed into Mariupol from Lukansk and Donetsk, the Azov Battalion was one of the units that were motivated enough to effectively stop them. This was documented by entities such as Vice broadcasting. This prevented the Russians from occupying the coastal areas all the way to Crimea. The Ukranian government has acted to bring them under the control of the military leadership and did encounter resistance.
      Bellingcat has done some excellent work providing updates on links between Neo-nazi’s there as well as links to fascists in Europe as well as Russia. This is the same entity that the Russian government has a distinct dislike for.


      1. I would be very pleased if there were a reasonable explanation for this, but I noticed that many people in that article failed to mention one, and appeared to be casting about for something plausible in a rather panicky fashion.

        The best justification I can see is “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” For me, this fails for two reasons.

        First of all, I think we ought to be trying to de-escalate tensions with Russia – their people have enough in common with us that we could easily be friends, but their government is basically a bunch of repulsive, disgusting monsters, gangsters and assassins, and that is directly our fault – after the Berlin Wall feel fell, instead of a Marshall Plan style reconstruction that could have overseen a smoother transition of power and the creation of a government capable of governing without use of state terror and secret police, we just left them bankrupt to face the winter with nothing but their shattered faith in their ideology to keep them warm. Surprise, surprise, the power vacuum was filled by a bunch of ruthless mass murdering crooks, who are now in control of one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals and a really big conventional army and one of the world’s largest economies. I think we ought to be looking for ways to reduce tension, though I agree that is more easily said than done.

        The second reason it fails is because in my lifetime, I’ve already watched both the Mujahadeen and Saddam Hussein go from, “out pet monster who ultimately serves the greater good” to “the dreaded enemy who must be uprooted at all costs.” If we help a rabid rat because it is fighting a bear we fear, then we are creating a future where we will either have to fight a bear that is really pissed off at us for siccing a rabid rat on him, or a country the size of Russia governed by rabid rats. Either seems worse than what we have today.

        I acknowledge deescalation will be hard and complicated, but believe it is the right way to go.

        1. Well, except the plan was always for crooks and thugs to take over and privatize the Soviet Union. The reason the west hates Putin is because he was seen as an affable successor to the incompetent Yeltsin, And then wasn’t. Imagine the fury of the IMF, USAID, and the CIA when he re nationalized Yukos.

      2. AZOV took their battle cry straight from the bandera lobby, I would argue that after nearly 70 years of propping up far right gangs and militias all over Europe, them being nazis is a feature for the west, not a bug.

        The idea that Ukraine represents a homogenous population either politically or ethnically is an invention of the west, one only needs to give a cursory examination of the puppet government installed after the maidan protests to see that’s obviously the case. Canada supports far right actors in the Ukraine because we always have.


  6. In any case, I do thank our veterans and our troops for all they have done for us. I did have uncles who fought in WW2, and in the Korean War. They made it home. My father had cousins who also fought in WW2. Some of them didn’t make it home. My grandfather and some of his siblings fought in WW1. #LestWeForget

  7. Smedley Butler (1881-1940) was a United States Marine Corps major general, at that time the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. He didn’t write poetry but in 1935 penned a book, “War Is A Racket”.
    “It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.
    The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill?
    The bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations to come.”

    1. I don’t know why people bring up crazy old Smedley Butler. The notion that wars are fought for economic reasons is just silly. They’re fought to build nations and to stop bad guys, and the fact that an outfit like Jardine Matheson ended up with total control of the dope trade with China after the Opium Wars, or that United Fruit and Standard Oil ended up with massive economic control in various foreign lands after the good, brave work of the US Marine Corps, is purely coincidental. As is the good fortune of various Canadian mining interests in so many areas in which petty military dictators rule.

      1. Murphy: Case in point, I learned just after 11 a.m. at the Remembrance Day ceremony in St. Albert, thanks to the armed forces chaplain that gave the “meditation” (sermon, more like) that Canada’s soldiers fought in Europe from 1939 to 1945 to save “capitalism” and “free markets,” a point he made three times. It being a sermon and all, I didn’t have the opportunity to ask him to explain the landslide election of Clem Attlee with strong support from rank and file members of the British armed forces in July 1945. DJC

  8. Thank for You for this.

    This date is getting busier for me every year, messages on every of the few platforms a geezer like me connects with online. That’s because most of my peers are now old and winking out just like our many of our parents have, which include many fathers—mostly, but including a good many mothers— who were in the armed forces or merchant marine in World War II. There are very few left. Many of our grandfathers, too—mostly, but a good many women— were in the Home Guard and/or in The Great War. There are virtually none left.

    Lest we forget, our Remembrance used to be largely about those soldiers, sailors and field medics who never got to be fathers or mothers, tribute solemnly given by their comrades in arms who made it back home, many with injuries often unseen. Annually the ceremony was successively attended by older and older vets, their natural attrition replaced with fewer, younger veterans of more recent, more contained wars, Korea being the oldest, then Vietnam (where several hundred Canadians volunteered), the Balkans and Afghanistan—and, of course more widely deployed Canadian Peacekeeping forces. I remember the oldest vets—from both World Wars when I was young—weeping while we commemorated them, in the flesh—but they grieving for those not in attendance, the fallen who were barely 20 years old like they were, once. Visit a military cemetery: next to the numbers of markers, the most galling impression is how awfully young the great majority of dead were when they were killed.

    The last time I attended a memorial was in Victory Square in Vancouver, just a couple of years ago. I’d been, wherever I happened to be living (like Edmonton or Montreal or Victoria, &c), almost every year of my life, even when I was a “long-hair” (and young Americans whom I looked a lot like were streaming into BC in protest of their country’s futile occupation of Vietnam) because my own father and my uncles were in the War, in the RCAF. He made it back; he had a box full of photos —an orange crate full—of his comrades who didn’t. He never talked about it much. We used to attend at the Cenotaph in Markham, Ontario, every year, back when he’d point out the WW I vets, then very old. The last time, in Vancouver, was with my partner: her own father was also in the war. In the army. I was blown away by the number of people there: all ages and hues—about ten thousand, it was estimated.

    Remembrance Day wasn’t a holiday when I was a lad. We did our minute of silence at school and sang the “Maple Leaf Forever” and “God Save the Queen”—often with a veteran from our little town who gave a little speech. The Vicar might attend (there was always a special Sunday service at church, anyhow; there was a gold plaque listing the names of the fallen, dozens of them, just from our little town of about 150 souls); but, in any case, there was always a prayer.

    And always, always a recitation of Flanders Fields. It was always a sad contrast, and got even more so as peaceful years passed, between aging veterans and all those young men who were killed, not much more than boys. Remembrance Day was part of schooling back then: making sure we students would never forget. But, then, just like virtually every schoolmate had a pregnant mother at home managing a gaggle of kids like us, virtually all of us had a father—sometimes a mother—who was in the War. We boys played ‘war’ with sticks for ‘tommy guns’ and apples for ‘grenades’—a kind of ‘remembrance’ before wars were broadcast on the nightly news, before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not that I recall, but parents must have discouraged playing war at that point. They were afraid.

    I think it was in high school when I first heard Buffy Ste. Marie’s “Universal Soldier”and, ever since, it’s right up there with Flanders Fields. Lest we forget, three generations back-to-back where directly impacted by the Great Wars. And now we also remember the veterans of more recent but more-contained wars. But “this is not the way we put an end to war…” During the ‘Red Scare’ in the USA, that song was probably considered subversive, but I heard it at school, recited in English class as a poem.

    I guess it was because we learned about this in various ways, not only on this special Day, when we were school kids that, although we remembered them with old men, it was always about the young men who never made it home. Me, I also remember my grandmother’s two sisters whose fiancés were killed in The Great War: they remained spinsters, living together, just as they had done, waiting to be married, their whole lives. I don’t recall either of them attending Remembrance services with us. They were too heartbroken—for over sixty years until they passed within a few months of each other. Lest I forget.

  9. ‘The Green Fields of France’ written by Eric Bogle and most famously performed by the Dropkick Murphys is also a great anthem of tribute and regret to those who died in World War I.

  10. My mother had an uncle who died at Passchendaele he was only 21 years old. He died just two hours before the fighting stopped, which doesn’t seem fair. I also had a grandfather who fought in World War I . He was a veterinarian and was in charge of treating the horses and dogs used in the war. We knew better than to ask him anything about the war he never talked about it.

    1. ALAN K SPILLER: My grandfather fought in WW1, but that was when he was still living in the eastern part of Europe, before he, his wife and some of their young children came over to Canada. Some of their sons fought in WW 2, and also in Korea. One of my uncles didn’t have happy times after. I think he had PTSD. Even my grandfather suffered effects of WW1. He lost some brothers in that war. My dad also had cousins who fought in WW2. Some didn’t make it back home. Another maternal uncle was in the Navy, in WW2. Another paternal uncle, from the eastern part of Europe, also had some not so good experiences during WW2, under the hands of the Nazi regime. He came to Canada, barely surviving, due to harsh conditions, but he overcame it, and started over.

  11. This is an interview with my great uncle. His brother was killed at Falaise during the failed attempt to corral German XV Army before they could high-tail it into the Scheldt Estuary in the summer of ’44, where the interviewee later got blowed up real good, although clearly he was not too much worse for wear, living another seventy-five years after the unfortunate event. He came home to Canada where the kindly democratic government helped him obtain a peat farm that had been stolen from someone with the misfortune to have been born in Japan, which he successfully converted to cranberry production in the years after the war. The Lord giveth, and sometimes he taketh away if you look or speak “funny”.

  12. The biggest problem I have with “In Flanders Fields” is that it maintains the myth of the ‘glorious dead’, honouring those latter day Achille, Hercules, and Leonidas, heroic Canadian Spartans, standing against the cruel Hun, for the sake of their beloveds, for King and Country, mortuus aut gloria. The peom is so far removed from the reality of war that it could have come from a different time and age. Oh, wait. It does.

  13. You and I read the poem totally differently, I think you do a disservice to it, though with your interpretation I can see why you dont like it:
    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.

    The foe is living your life well with the freedom they bought for you with their lives, not the Kaiser.

  14. Mary has a little ditty thats worth reading:

    The first comment is good also:
    “If a civilisation sacrifices almost an entire generation of men of character and courage, leaving the milieu to be reset by the shirkers, it should be no surprise that a few generations on we are reaping what was sown.”

    It explains alot.

  15. Really good article. I’ve thought for years that Dulce Et Decorum Est ought to replace Flanders Fields for about ten years, although I’ve never been able to express myself as well as the author does here.

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