Print Story In Flanders fields
Diary
By aphrael (Fri Nov 10, 2017 at 07:10:43 PM EST) (all tags)
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.



When the world changes, often, nobody is expecting it, and often, nobody notices it until one day they look back and see: Then, that day, that moment, everything was different.

Sometimes it's not like that. When the Berlin Wall came down, everyone knew that the world had changed in the blink of an eye, and that, in a way, as Jesus Jones put it, we were watching the world wake up from history. But often it's not like that.

When the Great Powers went to war in the fall of 1914, they did not know that this would change their world. They thought, most of them, that they'd be home for Christmas.

They were fools, and they were wrong.

The Great War was a cataclysm: a bitter, terrible torrent of destruction after which the Western world was never the same. It's STILL not the same. The innocence of the enlightenment was shattered -- in a way that the Napoleonic wars had never done -- and that innocence has not come back.

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
      Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
      And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
      Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
      Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
      Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
      Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.

The Great War killed 10 million people and wounded 21 million more. A further 8 million disappeared, never to be seen again, their ultimate fate unknown. By MODERN standards this would be an incredible blow; but the population of the world, at that time, was less than a quarter of the population of the world today. On the order of two and a half percent of the entire world population was killed, wounded, or went missing.

Two and a half percent of the population of the ENTIRE WORLD. And that doesn't even count the secondary deaths due to famine or disease caused by the war.

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

In the combatant countries, of course, it was much worse. In France, it's estimated that more than four percent of the country died; in Germany, around four percent; in England, around two percent; in the Ottoman Empire, an incredible fourteen percent. That's DEAD, mind you, so the figure doesn't include the wounded, or the missing -- people who, though they survived, never lived quite normal lives again.

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time's but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?

If you looked just at the population of fighting age men, it was even worse. It's estimated that fully one third of fighting age men in the United Kingdom were killed or wounded during the Great War.

One Third.

Can you imagine? Think back on your college years, and imagine one third of everyone you knew dying in a war in a foreign land. A war that, when it started, nobody expected to last longer than a few months.

A war that was different from previous wars, because there was no longer room for the bravery of the individual soldier, or the honor of hand-to-hand combat; this was a war of machine against machine. A war of technological terror: gas that blistered the skin and the fabric of the lungs, walls of bullets through which no man could proceed, explosives lodged in the ground, hidden until it was too late to avoid them. Terrors we know well in this day and age, but which were new, and scarier for it.

And worse: a war of slaughter. The Battle of the Somme, by no means the worst battle in this regard, lasted four and a half months and produced 1.2 million casualties. That's on the rough order of 8000 casualties a day. The First Battle of the Marne lasted five days and produced 150,000 casualties --- a much more distressing 30,000 casualties a day.

Can you imagine? THIRTY THOUSAND CASUALTIES A DAY?

Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat:
Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean,
A merciful putting away of what has been.

And this we know: Death is not Life, effete,
Life crushed, the broken pail. We who have seen
So marvellous things know well the end not yet.

Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say,
“Come, what was your record when you drew breath?”
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright Promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.

The death rate was so high in part because the fighting quickly degenerated into something new and terrifying: men hiding in trenches where they were beseiged by poisonous gases, afraid to pop their heads out of the trenches lest they be mowed down by machine guns; armies that tried valiantly and vainly to advance on the enemy lines in the face of such weapons, and died on a tremendous scale shifting the lines no further than a frisbee could be thrown.

One of the craziest involved an attempt to invade a country by landing a large group of foreign soldiers at the base of a cliff and trying to take the cliff from below; that descent into insanity produced 550,000 casualties.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

The war brought change throughout the world. How could it not? What man, living through this hell, could see the world as he had before it? And what society, watching deaths on this scale, could remain unscathed?

In Europe, four of the great empires fell. In the colonies, two of the English settler states became nations, their conscious identity forged by the deaths of their countrymen, while in many of the occuppied states, the oppressed locals learned for the first time that it was possible for the occuppiers to be defeated and killed. In the United States, our entry into the war brought us closer to totalitarianism than we have ever been, before or since.

The death of one of the empires created the modern middle east, with all of its problems. Another empire's death, brought about by the anger of soldiers who were forced to march to the slaughter through snow without shoes (and the anger of the peasants who were starved by the war), cemented communism as the enemy of the west for most of the next century. The death of yet another empire led to bitter anger and resentment that set the stage for yet another war, less than a generation later.

Everything changed.

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.

And how could it not? Trauma stays with us; it is written into our bones, inscribed in our souls, and it never leaves. The generation that fought the war, the generation that watched the war, was broken; a dark spirit settled over them, that never truly lifted. Interwar philosophy was laced with existential nihilism, because in many ways that was the easiest, most appropriate response. How could one believe in a God who allowed this?

Those who love The Lord of the Rings know that part of the story is that the hero emerged so scarred that he can never truly enjoy the fruits of his heroism; that feeling, that truth, was one of the truths of the war.

Sixteen years old when I went to the war,
To fight for a land fit for heroes,
God on my side, and a gun in my hand,
Chasing my days down to zero,
And I marched and I fought and I bled and I died,
And I never did get any older,
But I knew at the time that a year in the line,
Was a long enough life for a soldier,
We all volunteered, and we wrote down our names,
And we added two years to our ages,
Eager for life and ahead of the game,
Ready for history's pages,
And we brawled and we fought and we whored 'til we stood,
Ten thousand shoulder to shoulder,
A thirst for the Hun, we were food for the gun,
And that's what you are when you're soldiers,
I heard my friend cry, and he sank to his knees,
Coughing blood as he screamed for his mother,
And I fell by his side, and that's how we died,
Clinging like kids to each other,
And I lay in the mud and the guts and the blood,
And I wept as his body grew colder,
And I called for my mother and she never came,
Though it wasn't my fault and I wasn't to blame,
The day not half over and ten thousand slain,
And now there's nobody remembers our names
And that's how it is for a soldier

Four years the war went on. Four years, the west was broken. Four years, people cried out in terror and died, and it kept going. And going. And going.

And then, blessedly, it ended.

The world was never the same again. The world could never be the same again. But the slaughter stopped; peace broke  out --- tentative, localized. Fighting continued in Russia and Turkey for several years yet. But the grinding massacre came to an end; the guns fell silent for a while, even in the places where they shouted loudly a mere few months later.

There was a moment of peace to grab, and to hold, and to use to rebuild: not to rebuild what came before, but to rebuild something new.

It failed, of course; the war laid the seeds of that failure. But for a blessed moment, it was possible to try.

Now, God be thanked who has matched us with his hour,
      And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping!
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
      To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary;
      Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
      And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
      Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
            Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there,
      But only agony, and that has ending;
            And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

Today is the ninety-ninth anniversary of that moment when the nightmare ended. There are none left, now, who remember it from experiencing it: they have passed from the world, as all men do in time.

It is left to us to remember it for them.

Armistice Day is not my favorite holiday, for what we must remember today is too painful to bear that description. But it is, in a sense, the most important holiday -- because we owe it to those who suffered to remember their suffering, and because while remembering is not enough to prevent it from happening again, forgetting guarantees that it will.

Oh! You who sleep in Flanders' Fields
Sleep sweet - to rise anew;
We caught the torch you threw,
And holding high we kept
The faith with those who died.
We cherish, too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
But lends a lustre to the red
On the flower that blooms above the dead
      In Flanders' fields.

And now the torch and Poppy red
Wear in honour of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught:
We've learned the lesson that ye taught
      In Flanders' fields.

< Attn Dr Thrustgood infidel | Hey wait. >
In Flanders fields | 2 comments (2 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
So very horrible by ana (4.00 / 1) #1 Fri Nov 10, 2017 at 07:41:21 PM EST
Lest we forget the horror.

Or get rabies. Also don't do that. --scrymarch

I remember WWI vets when I was in elem. school by marvin (4.00 / 1) #2 Fri Nov 10, 2017 at 11:04:03 PM EST
Remembrance Day in the 1980s had the same feeling then as what you wrote about. The WWI vets were few and frail by then. There were still soldiers alive who were alive when John McCrae wrote his poem.

Never again. Lest we forget.

Today even in canuckistan there are too many overtones for me of "honour our soldiers / rah rah military r all heroes / every fight by NATO countries is worthy of respect". That mood does not make me want to attend the ceremonies anymore or have anything to do with Remembrance Day. It feels like Nov 11 has shifted from a day where we remembered why war was so absolutely horrible and devastating, transmuting into a day of unquestioning glorification of our military and their wars.

In Flanders fields | 2 comments (2 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback