Some Thoughts On Remembrance
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Sometimes I wonder what's going on in some people's heads. White poppies for instance. What's that all about? Well, it seems that some people today believe that Remembrance Day is all about celebrating peace. It isn't really, though it is celebrated on the anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War To End All Wars, (WWI). It's all about commemorating the sacrifices that Canadians (and our allies) had to make in order to benefit from that peace.It's not about glorifying war either, and We don't need special day to celebrate peace because we reap its benefits EVERY day that we live in peace. But that peace did not come cheaply. Nearly 100,000 Canadians died in the last century alone so that we can enjoy that peace. That's a steep price.
The red poppy was chosen as a symbol of remembrance by the UK and Canada, precisely because it of its attachment to the battlefields of Flanders where tens of thousands of our soldiers lie buried. It is a symbol of the terrible cost of war, and has deep meaning to anyone who has ever worn a Canadian uniform, including myself. A white poppy on the other hand is symbol of nothing at all.
"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."
I have a second, perhaps deeper connection to the red poppies of Flanders insofar as both my parents, indeed, my entire ancestry hails from Belgium. My father's father Alexander Menten served in the Belgian Army for four horrible years in the trenches during the Great War, being wounded twice, gassed, and though he survived, his health was ruined by the exposure to poison gas, the effects of which plagued him for the rest of his life.
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My parents lived through the Nazi occupation of Belgium 1940-1944, and my mother's father, Guillaume Mommaerts fought the Nazis first in the regular army in the spring of 1940, then in the resistance after Belgium's capitulation. He and my mother's cousin were arrested by the Gestapo. My grandfather spent six weeks in solitary confinement before being released, if my memory serves, with a case of pneumonia.* The cousin was not so lucky and was tortured, being eventually released on the intervention of a German military doctor. His mother was taken in his place and sent to Ravensbruck and Mathausen concentration camps. She and my grandfather survived the war, her son did not.
My parents both lived through the occupation and were on hand when the British 2nd Armoured Division liberated Brussels on Sept 3, 1944. My parents met after the war, married and came to Canada in 1956, and I was born here, in freedom, in 1962. But many, many young men, a lot of them Canadian, died or were maimed or forever changed by the horror of war to buy that freedom. They died in Flanders fields, they died on the beaches of Normandy, in the skies over Berlin, in hills of Sicily and Italy an in the flooded fields of Holland.
"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."
So Canada's military history is deeply tied to the history of the land of my ancestors, to my own life
and my freedom, and it was an honour to have served in it for a time. That the entire nine years I spent in it was spent in peace has much to do with the sacrifices made by others before my time, the symbol of which is a red flower that grows 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."