What is War and What is Remembrance Day?

remembrance-day-poppyI had no idea when I first wrote this of who chose the symbolism of the Eleventh hour of the Eleventh day of the Eleventh month to mark the official ending of what was then known as The Great War. But I later did a search on the internet and discovered that while the Armistice with Germany was officially signed in that railway carriage near Paris at 5.00 am, and the Germans wanted it to be immediate, the Allies apparently insisted that it be six hours later so that all the commanders could be informed. A decision that was to cost another 863 men their lives. So that was how the ceremonies that many of us observe today came into being. And which, now, of course, have been expanded to honour those who sacrificed their lives in World War II and, in some Commonwealth countries, Korea as well.

So here is a combination of what I personally remember; what I now know: and what effect war has had on me, for I am the child of two world wars. And how, you may well ask, can that possibly be?


Well, in my case, there is a very simple explanation. I happened to be the first of the three children in our family to get the measles. Once I was no longer contagious, I was shipped off to my maternal grandparents. In an upstairs room I found a pile of The London Illustrated News magazines for the period from 1914 -1918. I read them all. I had nothing else to do.

And to this day, in my mind’s eye, I can still see the photograph of a battalion of French soldiers who had been ambushed. The road is filled with their bodies in which wide open, white, white, sightless eyes stare unseeing into the sky. But their faces ~ the faces are as black as night and, if you are but a six or seven year-old boy, how Frenchmen can have black faces is a huge mystery.

But it was only much later that I had any real understanding of the, to me, seemingly senseless slaughter of young men that occurred during that war. For example, on July1st 1916, the very first day of The Battle of the Somme, which was not to end until November 18th, some twenty-one thousand British soldiers, representing twenty percent of the army, were dead.

After the war, the Official Historians on all sides came to these general conclusions, I have rounded the numbers:

British Commonwealth armies, 420,000 casualties; 96,000 killed.
French Army, 204,000 casualties, 50,000 killed.
German Army, 465,000 casualties, 164,000 killed and 31,000 men taken prisoner.

So, in less than five months, there are over a million casualties and 310,000 dead young men. So that is the macrocosm of just one battle, Ypres being another story, and, for Canadians, yet another at Vimy Ridge.

Miraculously, men like J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, will be spared to write the wonderful stories that many of us now know so well

But here is just one example of a microcosmic tragedy: As a consequence of mistaking a German flare for an Allied one, 780 men of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment were marched into battle that day. All twenty-two officers and six-hundred and fifty eight of the soldiers were killed.  Of the one hundred and ten men who survived, only sixty-eight answered roll-call the following day: A whole regiment wiped out in a couple of hours

So ever since then, July 1st is the day on which Newfoundlanders continue to remember “The Best of the Best.”

Subsequently, the regiment returned to full-strength and fought, with distinction, in many other battles. So much so, that in 1917, King George V honoured the regiment by renaming it the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, which was only the third time in the history of the British army that such an award was given in time of war. And it was the only time in WWI that such an honour was bestowed on a regiment.

Note: In 1949, when Newfoundland became a province of Canada, the Regiment became part of the Canadian Army reserve, and later served in Afghanistan.  And because in WWII, and understandably so I would say, the regiment sent only artillery units overseas, it wasn’t until Monday, August 30th 2010, that the regiment would  suffer its next fatality when Corporal Brian Pinksen died there of wounds from an explosive device.

Two years before The Battle of the Somme, and after the first battle of the war had been fought, Laurence Binyon, sitting on the North Cornwall cliffs will write a poem, the fourth stanza of which has become known as The Ode to Remembrance and is one of the first things that children in most Commonwealth countries will become aware of during the Remembrance Day ceremonies:

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

So fast forward some thirty years because each Christmas Day, the young men of the 1st Mortlake Sea Scouts, of which I am a member, put on their uniforms and go to the Star and Garter building, atop Richmond Hill, which was “home” to many wounded old soldiers. We fed these helpless men their dinners. In my youthful folly, I thought that seeing us young bucks in all our finery must have pleased them to know that their sacrifice had been worthwhile. But, it is only now, in my old age, that I become really aware that if I had been one of them, I would have cursed the Fates and wished for a much quicker death.

Later I shall read “All Quiet on the Western Front”, written by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of trench warfare, and published in Germany in 1929 but subsequently banned and burned by the Nazis. I thought his descriptions of trench war-fare were far worse than some of the British stories I was aware of. Moreover, at the very outset, Remarque writes “This book will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war.” Fifty years later, American soldiers returning from Viet Nam will suffer the same fate. As do others even now.

Consequently, regardless of the “rightness” of the cause, being an ordinary human in a war has to be the ugliest thing imaginable, to which the burned faces of WWII Battle of Britain pilots are also a mute and frightening testimony.  In fact, at this stage of my life, I would say that there are no “winners” in a war because everyone loses something, especially their innocence.

The other poem that also became part of our growing up was written by Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a medical doctor, who, while in command of No. 3 Canadian General Hospital near Boulogne, was to die of pneumonia on January 28th 1918 and be buried the next day, with full military honours, in the nearby Allied War Graves cemetery at Wimereux.

But what I didn’t know ~ and Wikipedia is such a gold mine of information ~ was that he had written the poem three years earlier ~ March 24th 1915 ~ to mark the death of his friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer, who had just been killed in the Second Battle of Ypres. Here’s what McCrae wrote:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still gravely 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


And such are the terrible ironies of life that in 1952, in Quebec, whose population had violently opposed conscription in WWI, Frank Selke, an Anglophone born in Berlin, Ontario of all places, and formerly with the Toronto Maple Leafs ice-hockey team, and now general manager of the Les Canadiens de Montreal, had these words of McCrae’s painted on the wall of the team dressing-room in the old Montreal Forum: “To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.” Presumably he did this as a reminder to his new team of French Canadians of the glorious past Stanley Cup victories by the veterans who were no longer able to play.

In 1966, when the team moved to the Molson Centre, since renamed the Bell Centre, those words, now with a French translation, were put in the new dressing-room. I consider that obscene.

And so we come to August of 1939, where the storm clouds are gathering and our family is on holiday in a punt on the River Thames. We hurry home and the whole little private school that my brother and I are attending is evacuated, along with three girls, one of whom is my younger sister, to what memory says was a Bishop’s palace in the country. And then occurs what is called The Phoney War because nothing happens for seven months or so.

And, for reasons that I shall never know, the school closes and we are all brought back home to London where my father is making an underground concrete bomb shelter in the back-garden. And as good Boy Scouts, my brother and I and a friend will get out the Troop’s Trek Cart and collect things from stores that can be used in the war effort. In the meantime, men with acetylene torches will come down the streets and take away all the iron railings in front of people’s homes, to be melted down and turned into instruments of war.

In June of 1940, although I don’t know the details of this at the time, what is called The Miracle of Dunkirk, occurs and in nine days using over 850 vessels, including fishing boats, ferries and pleasure craft, about two hundred and fifty of which are sunk, some three hundred and forty thousand English, French, Polish, Belgian and Dutch troops are evacuated. (I shall later see all these different uniforms, plus others, on the streets of London, where, still later I shall explain English coinage to American soldiers). But between thirty and forty thousand French troops are left behind to surrender.

A couple of months later, and by now I am now all of nine and a half years old, if you will forgive the phrase, the shit really hits the fan: on September 7th the Luftwaffe arrives, and The London Blitz which will continue for the next fifty-seven nights, begins. The air raid shelter my father has dug in the back garden is not quite finished and the cement has yet to cure. So on that night he will place a door across the middle to rest on where the lower bunks on either side will be, and above the water that is below. There, covered by a blanket, I shall sleep in my clothes.

A couple of early evenings later he will take me into the garden and ask me to face west, which, given a beautiful setting sun, is an easy thing to do. Then he will turn me around one hundred and eighty degrees and I will discover that a red sky at night is not always a sailor’s delight: the whole of the eastern sky is an angry red with clouds of black smoke everywhere: London is still burning.


And although I don’t discover this until I am in my late twenties, those fifty-seven nights of being in that shelter will leave me with Post Trauma Stress Disorder. The first inkling I have of this is when I become aware that about an inch inside my right ear, I am constantly hearing five sounds: First, there is the high-pitched wailing of the air raid sirens which is followed by the sounds of aeroplane engines. Then the Bofors anti-aircraft gun not far from our house starts firing its clips of shells, a series of five Woofs. And then there is the whistling sound as the bombs fall, followed by the crump as the ground shakes when they land. Five houses within a hundred metres of ours will be destroyed during this time. (There is now an internet map which shows exactly where they hit).

Some nights later about a hundred incendiary bombs will miss the near-by railway yards and land in the high school playing fields immediately behind our home, where they will do no harm. But, much later, when our next door neighbours get someone in to fix a leak that has developed in their roof, they will find one bomb there that didn’t explode. Such is the way life goes.

But it is not just London that suffers; Liverpool was the next most heavily bombed city, Coventry and Plymouth are others, and the list goes on. In Germany, to mention but two cities, Hamburg, and most controversial of all, Dresden, will suffer more far-reaching damage and huge civilian casualties from the fire-bombing.

And I have no idea why this took so many years, but it finally occurred to me that if I added a sixth sound to the ones in my head: the more peaceful All Clear of the sirens, I could probably bring an end to that on-going experience, and so it was.

But it was not until, in my late sixties when I had a new experience of love that all the panic attacks that had plagued my marriage of forty years finally ceased. ~ would you believe that I was unable to get on buses, planes, or sit in the middle rows of a theatre, where I had no easy escape route? A lot of tranquillizers and alcohol got used in those years, plus the occasional middle of the night visit to the nearest hospital emergency department. Now I am free of all that and can enjoy all forms of transportation again: Flying above the earth is now one of my greatest joys and not one of my greatest fears.

On May 24th 1941, occurs one of the blackest days in Royal navy history when “Mighty Hood,” the pride of the fleet, is hit by a salvo of shells from the German battleship Bismarck and explodes. Of her crew of 1,418 men, only three will survive.  Churchill immediately issues the order: “Sink the Bismarck.” Three days later it is done and while the British will rescue 110 men, another 1,830 men go down with her.

A couple of footnotes:

1. H.M.S. Hood was commissioned in 1920 and was due to have her armour plating upgraded in 1939 but the outbreak of war prevented that.

2. Bismarck was commissioned in 1940 and had the benefit of all the latest advances in gunnery and technology. So this was like a forty-year old boxer taking on a twenty-year old, with the inevitable result: a First Round knock-out.

3. History is interesting. The battleship was the third one named after Admiral Samuel Hood (1724-1816) who was a very successful Commander in both the American and French Revolutionary wars. So, and has as always been the practice among chart-makers, in 1792, Lieutenant William Broughton, sailing as part of Vancouver’s exploration of the Pacific Northwest, will not only chart the Columbia River but name an extinct volcano near Portland, Oregon as Mount Hood. Later, in Washington State, he will name a body of water that I have driven beside many times, the Hood Canal which has no exit to the sea.

4.. And, and another irony, the American Navy will also name two ships Hood, after the mountain, but without apparently knowing where the mountain got its name from in the first place. (Wikipedia).

5. In 2008 and 2009 I shall make two small-boat summer cruises among the islands of The Broughton Archipelago, off the BC mainland, that are named after him.



Next, what I also remember, as do most of you who are reading this, is that the Nazis deliberately killed almost six million Jews in what has become known as the Holocaust, and for which many memorials around the world have been created. But it may not be generally known that the Nazis also deliberately killed two million ethnic Poles, because Hitler wanted more lebensraum ~ living space ~ for the German people;  another million and a half Romani (gypsies) were killed along with about 150,000 handicapped people, 15,000 homosexuals and 5.000 Jehovah’s witnesses. This is about ten million deaths.

But here is the number that has stuck in my mind for a long time now: 25,000,000 because it far surpasses any of those other totals. And that is a rather large number, which most of us probably have difficulty in really comprehending. So, for the longest time I looked for a way to convey it’s magnitude to others. (Incidentally, writing twenty-five million makes it seem much smaller which is why I chose not do that).

But to make my point, I did choose Canada partly because its large geographic size made that easier, even though it did not come into existence as a nation until 1867, of which more in a moment; and partly because I have lived here for over fifty years. So here is what I want you to now imagine:

A huge cloud filled with an inexhaustible supply of poison gas is being blown out of the Pacific Ocean by a westerly wind. The ancient people of Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands are the first to die. Next, are the people of British Columbia and those in the Yukon. And so it goes, the wide expanse of the Prairies fall silent. All traffic ceases in the major cities of Toronto and Montreal. Finally, the lighthouse keeper and his family on Cape Spear, the easternmost part of Newfoundland succumb.

The year is 1982 which means that it took Canada more than a hundred years to reach a population of 25,000,000 which tragically happens to match, or actually be less than,  the number of what our neighbours to the south call “Commie Bastards” who, in just five years between 1940 and 1945, died in the Soviet Union. And more than ten million of those who died were ordinary people just like you and me.

And that, more than anything else, is what I now remember because I don’t believe very many people in the whole world remember this. For example, in Russia and some of their former Republics, they celebrate World War II Victory Day on May 6th when the Germany signed the surrender agreement for the second time. Stalin didn’t like the first one. And that suddenly reminds me that Remembrance Day is really a World War I ceremony, with pieces added on later, which is why countries like France and Belgium also have ceremonies on November 11th. But, essentially, apart from the Americans who were also there, no one else does.

Many years ago, I stopped going to the War memorials or watching the ceremony on TV because it was just too painful ~ and I don’t like crying either in public or privately. So, for some years now, I usually go and sit by the sea and quietly express gratitude that the only thing that may now fall on my head from the skies is rain. However, in either 2001 or the next year, I did something quite different. I was going to be in Peru at that time and I took with me one of the large $5 poppies that I haven’t seen for some time now.

On the morning of November 12th I get an empty bus from Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of the mountains, to take me up to Machupicchu. Under the back seat I find a walking stick which I consider to be a good omen since the guide and my two companions who were supposed to be coming with me, have obviously decided not to. At ten-thirty I sign in at the hut at the base of Waynapicchu (young peak) and around noon I am on the top of the mountain that you will see pictured on the Biography page.

And there, below the huge rocks that formed the summit I find a little  walking trail on one side of which is a sheer drop and, on the other, sheltered from the wind, a small ledge, on which grass and some little plants are  growing. And there I put the poppy to symbolize the co-existence of life and death. At 1.45 pm, double the time the guide had suggested I would need, I sign myself out.

Next, for those of you reading this who have been blessed with no actual experience of war, I just want you to know that I am very, very, happy for you. Moreover, it is impossible to really remember anything of which you have no personal experience. But let me be very clear, that is not a licence, nor an excuse, for those ignorant people, mostly women, who, a few years ago, in many places, were wearing white poppies, on the only day of the year they were being asked to remember those who had died so that they could have the privilege of protesting against war. That was another obscenity as far as I was concerned: If a Nazi had come in with a machine gun and killed them all I wouldn’t have minded at all.

Much easier for me to forgive the young German woman, who at a dance class she was leading on Remembrance Day a couple of years ago wanted us to dance to celebrate life and not remember death. And I could understand that given that I was the only person on the floor with any actual experience of war. The rest, bless them, didn’t have a clue and, in many ways didn’t need to.

And just last November, at a weekend silent retreat, I startled one of the organizers by reminding her that eleven o’clock was going to occur during our next sit and that it was customary to observe a two minute silence at that time. To his credit, when immediately informed, the American Buddhist leader to whom the whole notion of war was clearly quite distasteful, reminded everyone in a very respectful way of what day it was, and later struck the meditation bell a second and third time to put that silence within the larger silence.

So, finally, with all this most appropriate emphasis on Living in the Here and Now; being totally present to what is; and Letting Go, I find it interesting to wonder just where Remembering fits in, especially since the conflicts between nations and religious groups, never seem to stop. And the fact that the only thing humans seemed to have learned from history is that no one seems to have ever learned anything from history, is not particularly helpful.

But what that does remind me of is that there is more than one kind of remembering and I shall stop here because what I am about to write is a non starter: What we have seen especially in Ireland, and also in the Middle East, is that teaching kids about their heritage/history can perpetuate age-old differences and hatreds, leading to less loving and acceptance of others who are not part of the their tribe.

So, for far too many people in the world today their lives seem to be more about retribution and less about love: Just look at how much fear/hatred of others seems to be being taught these days as our societies become more violent with each passing day.