The backdrop of Veterans Day

Remembering red poppies and the Great War’s armistice

by Ken Sehested
for the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day ending World War I

 “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake.”
—Jeanette Rankin, first female elected to federal office (in 1916, to the US House of Representatives,
before women were allowed to vote) and dissenting voter on US declarations of war in both world wars

I used to think the symbolic wearing of red poppies in remembrance of war’s sacrificial cost was a British thing. And mostly it is, if you include other nations who belong to the Commonwealth. It was a Canadian military surgeon, one with poetic inclinations, who established what is essentially a weed’s place in literary and military history.

Papaver rhoeas, known variously as the Flanders poppy, corn poppy, red poppy and corn rose.

“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.” —John McCrae, “In Flanders fields

Story has it that Lieutenant Colonial John McCrae was unhappy with his composition, written immediately after he presided over the 1915 battlefield burial of a close friend killed in the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium; but some of his comrades retrieved the piece, which was published later that year. The story might have ended there had it not been for a literature professor at the University of Georgia, Moina Michael, who read “In Flanders Field” in the Ladies Home Journal. She was so inspired that she successfully lobbied the American Legion Auxiliary to produce and sell silk red poppies to raise funds for supporting war veterans.

At about the same time, a Frenchwoman named Anna Guérin also was championing the symbolic power of the red poppy as a cultural tradition supporting the war’s tragic memory. Eventually she convinced the Royal British Legion, whose mission was to support returning veterans, in adopting the practice. The observance in Britain took hold. [For more background, see “The World War I Origins of the Poppy as a Remembrance Symbol,”]

President Trump’s recent behavior in France, citing the inconvenience of rain as reason to skip the official observance of the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I with national leaders from around the world, is symptomatic of US relative nonchalance over the “Great War.” The cost here was minimal: some 116,000 troops killed out of the total fatality count of 10 million combatants. America was in the war for less than a year.

Or maybe the lack of public sentiment in the US is because World War I was supposed to have been, according to then President Woodrow Wilson, the “war to end all wars” which would “make the world safe for democracy.”

Left: Photo of African American troops of the 369th Infantry, formerly the 15th Regiment New York Guard, who were among the most highly decorated upon its return home in 1918. They were also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Getty Images.

It wasn’t, and it didn’t. In fact, the US now has special forces operations in 149 countries around the world.

In the aftermath of Veterans Day, four things are important to remember.

1. The law of unintended consequences is never more apparent than in violent conflict. World War I, begun in July 2014 between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, quickly spread to numerous other countries due to an interlocking series of alliances. The howls of purported dishonored national glory were provoked by precisely the kind of nationalist assertions made recently by US President Donald Trump.

It was all supposed to be over by Christmas. Instead, it escalated quickly. Given the imperial reach of several of the belligerent nations, soldiers from 28 different countries participated. Nations as far away from Europe as South Africa and Japan participated. And all of this started when a fervent Serbian nationalist assassinated the presumptive heir (and his wife) to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

It was unprecedented carnage. The first day alone of the Battle of the Somme resulted in over 70,000 casualties. By war's end on 11 November 1918, the final tally of vengeance for one assassination had claimed the lives of nearly 40 million combatants and civilians, many times over wounded. Add to that, eight million horses, mules, and donkeys were killed.

Furthermore, the war precipitated the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian genocide, which took the lives of another 1.5 million; and it was a significant factor in “the greatest medical holocaust in history,” the 1918 influenza outbreak, which took the lives of somewhere between 50-100 million people worldwide.

McCrae himself died of pneumonia before the war’s end, caused at least in part by battlefield conditions.

2. The Great War was the globe’s first industrialized war. The exuberance of humankind’s burst of scientific discovery in the late 19th century dramatically increased the capacity for mechanized killing. Machine guns, submarines, airplanes, and tanks were “force multipliers” (to use current military jargon).

Right: Stone crosses marking the World War I graves of German soldiers are overtaken by time and the growing trunk of a tree in Hooglede German Military Cemetery on August 4, 2014, in Hooglede, Belgium. Photo by Christopher Furlong, Getty.

To say nothing of the development chemical weapons—which, though not the most reliable killing apparatus, was far and away the most terrifying. Each of the major powers—France, Britain and Germany—used chemical weapons, though Germany’s use was the most significant. The US developed an even more effective chemical weapon, and sent a specialized chemical warfare unit to Europe; but the war’s end precluded their deployment.

3. In 1954, in the heat of the Cold War’s hysteria, when “God” became the mascot of the “free” world over against the “godless” communists, Armistice (or “Remembrance”) Day was repurposed as “Veterans Day.” In so doing, the work of mourning and incantations resolving never-again were displaced by the celebration of martial prowess.

“Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not,” declared novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a World War II veteran and prisoner of war. “So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.”

When McCrae in his poem urged those who came after to “Take up our quarrel with the foe,” he had no inkling of how rapidly foes would abound.

4. Writers as far back as the Napoleonic Wars noted the sudden appearance of the red poppy on battlefields. But it was Lieutenant Colonel McCrae’s grief-inspired poem that highlighted the association.

What we now know is that in soils like that of Flanders, a thin crust of alkaline is released when the ground is disturbed, as happens with bombardment and grave digging. The soil becomes acidic, choking most growth. But poppies thrive in such war-spoiled botanical conditions.

The red poppy is not a floral triumph. Rather, it is the ground’s tear, resulting from the soil’s hemorrhage. It is a judgment lodged against the despoiling of earth’s fertility—and against all mortal “faith” requiring blood sacrifice.

“If you defile the land, it will vomit you out.”
—Leviticus 18:28

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