Text: Mark 12:28-34 (“the Greatest Commandment)
“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.”
These are the first two verses of the beloved war poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. He wrote it in Belgium 100 years ago this May following the death of a friend in the battle of Ypres and it was first published 100 years ago next month in a British weekly magazine.
“In Flanders Fields” is probably the most famous poem by a Canadian and one of the most influential works of art to come out of the horrors of World War One. It has been recited at Remembrance Day ceremonies since King George V called for the first such Day in 1919 to mark the anniversary of the Armistice between the Allied and Central Powers on November 11, 1918. The poem is the source of the red poppy as a symbol of loss and respect in Canada and in the rest of the British Empire.
Like most Canadians, I love the poem, except for one thing — how the words of the third verse were used to recruit more young men to sign up to be cannon fodder in the Great War and to participate in the slaughter in which more than 15 million people died. The last verse reads:
“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.”
I would prefer the poem if it were slightly tweaked to read “Break off our quarrel with the foe / To you from failing hands we snuff the torch / Be yours to keep it out / If ye break faith with us who die / we shall not sleep though poppies grow in Flanders Field.” If those had been the words, McCrae’s poem would have been an anti-war one.
But of course, Punch magazine would never have published “In Flanders Field” in December 1915 if it had been written to warn young men away from signing up for the slaughter instead of the opposite. And given how sacred Remembrance Day is to us and given that Day’s association with McCrae’s poem and the poppy, perhaps it is even sacrilegious to suggest this change.
Last week, I bought a book of essays published to mark the poem’s centennial called “In Flanders Fields: 100 years: War, Loss and Remembrance” and I am enjoying it. One chapter details how McCrae’s poem was used in the 1917 federal election by the Union Government of Prime Minister Robert Borden against the French-Canadian-dominated Liberal Party of former Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier.
This war-time election was the most divisive in Canadian history. The central question was conscription – should young men be forced to sign up to serve, kill, and die in Europe or should service in the military continue to be voluntary.
By the end of 1917, a big majority of English-speaking Canadian young men had already volunteered to fight, and close to 40,000 of them had been killed. But French Quebec was another matter. While tens of thousands of French Quebeckers had volunteered, and thousands had been killed, many in Quebec were opposed to Canada’s involvement in Britain’s war. Laurier’s Liberal Party reflected this distrust of British imperialism in its opposition to conscription, and for this stance, the Liberals were widely vilified in the campaign.
Borden won the election even though Laurier won 62 of 65 seats in Quebec. The result was increase in animosity between Quebec and the rest of the country.
By refusing to “take up the torch,” Borden said Quebeckers were disloyal to the memory of those who had already fallen. The hatred he and others directed towards Laurier and Quebec, often using words from the third and final verse of McCrae’s poem, was almost as strong as the hatred directed towards the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
Today, many people might agree. Every Remembrance Day we are told that the sacrifice of the men who died “for God and Empire” in World War One secured the rights and freedoms we enjoy today.
But not everyone in English Canada agreed with this idea. One prominent voice in English Canada against Canada’s involvement in the war was that of Methodist Minister, Rev. J.S. Woodsworth. He would also have been a prominent founding member of the United Church of Canada in 1925 if he hadn’t resigned from his 20-year career as a minister in 1918 in disgust at the continuing support for the War by the entire leadership of the church.
After he left the ministry, Woodsworth became a union leader, a left-wing member of the House of Commons for Winnipeg from 1921 until his death in 1942, the architect of Canada’s Old Age Pension Plan, and the first leader of the CCF Party, or Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in 1932. The CCF was the fore-runner of today’s NDP Party.
Three years ago, Rev. Woodsworth made a brief reappearance in news reports when Prime Minister Stephen Harper attacked the NDP’s position on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Harper said that he was not ideologically opposed to war unlike the leader of the NDP who had voted against Canada’s entry into World War II in 1939. Harper was referring to Woodsworth, who as a Christian pacifist was the only member of the House of Commons to vote against Canadian participation in the War, and for which he lost the leadership of the CCF in 1939.
Harper may have had a point. Most people make a distinction between the two world wars, even though the First led directly to the Second. For example, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote that never was a war less necessary to fight than the First, but never was a war more essential to win than the Second.
Regardless, I am cheered to know of at least one church leader in Canada who argued in the midst of the First World War that it was a terrible mistake; that it was fought for empire and outdated notions of valour and obedience; and that it was one that neither side deserved to win. Virtually all the other ministers in the churches that formed the United Church – Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist — supported the war, as did most ministers on the enemy side.
“In Flanders Fields” would not have been published in 1915 unless it was a pro-war poem. But if an anti-war version had been written and published in 1919, it might have been well received. By the end of the war, tens of millions on both sides were disgusted with imperial, parliamentary, and church leaders who had argued that it was their sacred duty to engage in the mutual slaughter.
Rev. Woodsworth was isolated in English Canada from 1914 to 1918 in his opposition to the War. But after the War, his pacifism achieved support among large numbers of people. To me, he is a hero of Canadian church history.
It is hard for those who have lost loved ones in war to imagine that their sacrifice was in vain. But this is a bitter pill many are forced to swallow in countries that lose wars. Millions of soldiers in what is now Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey died in a losing cause in World War One, and many people consider that these deaths were in vain.
I think we should at least be able to consider the notion that the deaths of Canadians 100 years ago were just as pointless as the deaths of the soldiers of Central Powers. I think at least some of our remembrance should be directed in anger to how monarchs, churches, and politicians on all sides misled their subjects with disastrous results. Perhaps our memories of World War One should be tinged with some of the regret that many Americans feel about the deaths of thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s and in Iraq in the last decade – and with their shame and regret for the millions they killed on the other side . . .
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells a religious scholar that the Greatest Commandment is to love God and neighbour. He does not mention tribe, nation, or empire. The Way of Jesus is about universal values and not imperial or national ones.
My prayer today is that as the various centennials of the terrible events of 1914 to 1918 continue to be marked, we remember not just those like McCrae who hated the Germans and who urged us to take up the fight with this so-called foe, but also those like Woodsworth who reminded us of the common humanity of British and German, Austrian and Russian, and Turk and Australian, and who focused more on love of God and neighbour than on love of King and Empire.
On November 11, I pray that the red poppies we wear will not be used to exacerbate hatred and division, but instead remind us of our common humanity. All the blood shed in World War One, whether Canadian, German, British, Austrian, or Russian was precious. The sacrifices on all sides are what make our memories of that war sacred.
Finally, I pray that we will also remember forward to a time in which young people no longer blindly follow king and priest, or kaiser and pastor to kill and be killed, but instead try to love God and neighbour in the peaceful pursuit of a world transformed.