Our little town of Lac du Bonnet Manitoba Canada had (or has) many war veterans. My Grandpa Goulet was in WW1. Both my father Lorne and his brother (my uncle) Ron enlisted and fought in Europe during WW11.
My uncle Eddie Karklin was an “erk” or aircraft mechanic stationed in England during the war. I believe many of my friend’s fathers such as Norm McCoy, Arvid Dancyt, Chief Veilleux, Ed Chapman, Arnold Urban and many more were also in WW11. In truth I don’t really know for sure who was and who wasn’t. It’s not that when I was growing up I didn’t care but I didn’t know to care. The granite headstone style memorials only list those who died and didn’t make it home. I didn’t recognize any of their names. I never got to know any of these fallen heroes.
As a cub scout and later a boy scout and finally an eagle scout I always attended the November 11th Remembrance Day memorial service at Lac du Bonnet’s Memorial Park. It was only on these cold, dreary and somber days that I got to know and appreciate the number of men, veterans and/or Legionaries, dressed in their uniforms or blue Legionnaire jackets, who lived to make it home. Often these quiet sober soldiers would stop to shake my hand or nod in my direction. I think it was the uniform. It provided us with a common bond.
In truth these men didn’t talk about the war but, to me, it was the quiet nod or gentle handshake between uniformed men of the past and future that symbolized their passing of the torch. These men made it home to marry their childhood sweetheart, get a job with the Hydro or the Government Air Service, run a hotel or a bakery or a butcher shop and raise a family. Their sons and daughters became my classmates and friends.
One of my strongest memories of Remembrance Day, however, was in Grade School when a classmate, Kathy Picard, read the poem In Flanders Fields before general assembly. Us students, like poppies growing between the crosses, stood in line row on row while Kathy fearlessly stepped one step in front of the rest of us and recited the poem so eloquently and beautifully. Her reading really hit home for me and I have carried that memory ever since.
The poem was written by a Canadian, John McCrae, and along with the popularity of that poem the blood red poppy rapidly become the symbol for the sacrifice of the soldiers who died in the First World War. So much so we often called the day of remembrance Poppy Day. You now see the red pin-on poppy in the UK, France, USA and throughout the Commonwealth.
In 1976 I read a book titled The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussel and although I approved of his literary criticism of works by Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon I really resented his hyper critical analysis of In Flanders Field. Fussel was against the romanticism of war and his book showed how realism poems such as by Sassoon de-romanticized the notion of fighting for valour and helped lead us into the modern age.
Fussel, however, thought McCrae’s poem was trite and naive. Well I am sorry but don’t tell that to the men who fought and survived. They were well aware that there was no romance to be found in what they had been through and I think that was why it was so hard for them to talk about their experiences. My uncle Eddie brought home some horrific pictures of piles of corpses that were better off not remembered.
When I read the poem In Flanders Fields I didn’t think about how wonderful the war must have been. Nor did I feel for the men I didn’t know who didn’t come home. Instead I felt gratitude for the life that I have had the privilege to live because men like my father and my uncles and my friend’s fathers made it home alive. Our generation, and those who follow us, can’t remember the fallen because we never got to know them but we can remember those who silently carried the torch of the soldiers who died so we could live our lives without that heavy burden. These men lightened our load so we could do more with our lives and make the world a better place for the following generations.
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.
p.s., I am writing specifically about WW2 veterans of my dad’s era.