To Celebrate and Remember: July 1

Poppies of Flanders

Today is Canada Day, national holiday of our northern neighbor.  In America, we are preparing to celebrate the birth of our own nation three days hence. Let us wish our Canadian friends the best end enjoy the festivities here. But let us also pause and remember once again the suffering and sacrifices of those who made it possible for us to live freely in these blessed and noble lands.

99 years ago today, July 1, 1916, was the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  In that horrific encounter the British suffered 3,483 casualties an hour.  By midnight, British losses were 57,470 men. This is more than 50% of the manpower of the entire regular British Army in 2010.

That was in World War I, perhaps the most hideous and tragic of all conflicts because it was the first time that the tactics of ancient war confronted the machinery of modern war.  Formerly mighty stone fortresses and their defenders, blasted to rubble by monstrous artillery shells fired from 20 miles away. Cavalry and infantry charges, across open fields into cataracts of death spewed from automatic machine guns.

These encounters were foreshadowed years previously at places like Gettysburg and Balaclava, but they burst into full horror and unspeakable carnage with the perfection of the devilish engines of World War I. The Somme and battles like it befouled the battlefields and left large deposits of lime in the soil of France and Belgium.   Poppies were among the few plants that could still grow there.  In 1918, American professor Moina Michael resolved to wear a red poppy year-round to honor the soldiers who died in the war.  She also wrote poetry and campaigned to have the poppy adopted as an official symbol of remembrance by the American Legion.

John McCrae

One literary work that never fails to move me is “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, who was a Canadian physician in World War I.  On this day, I think, it’s well to ponder his touching poem once again.

In Flanders Fields

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
         In Flanders fields.

Lincoln (circled) at Gettysburg, three hours before delivering the Gettysburg Address.

The final stanza also calls to mind the message of Lincoln at Gettysburg: “… that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom..”

So yes, let us enjoy our nation’s upcoming birthday celebration and raise a glass in salute to our Canadian friends. But may we pause a moment, both to highly resolve as Mr. Lincoln said, and to hold the torch high as Mr. McCrae said. And on this day, July 1, it is also fitting that we whisper a prayer of gratitude and remembrance for those brave lads who suffered so terribly and made the ultimate sacrifice nearly 100 years ago in the War to End All Wars.

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