Each year on Veterans Day I try to read the famous war poem, "In Flanders Fields", by WWI soldier John McCrae [see poem below], and to listen to the war poems written by another WWI soldier named Wilfred Owen, whose most famous war poems are sung as solos in Benjamin Britten's highly acclaimed "War Requiem".
This "War Requiem" memory still gives me chills: years ago during an afternoon rehearsal with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in the open-air Shed at Tanglewood, Seiji Ozawa was conducting our choir and the orchestra through the earth-shattering "DIES IRAE" (Day of Wrath) of the "War Requiem". A huge summer storm was brewing with dark, ominous skies . . . the enormous floor-to-ceiling canvas sound curtain (hanging from the ceiling behind Seiji) began whipping wildly in the wild wind, seemingly in time with the wild sound of the music and Seiji's conducting; bittersweet beauty, all things considered."In Flanders Fields" reminds me that if beautiful things can grow best in disturbed soil, like red poppies, people can also grow beautifully in difficult, disturbed surroundings if they choose.
John McCrae was a Canadian soldier stationed in Belgium, and he was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium in 1915. His friend was killed in the battle and his burial inpsired McCrae to write "In Flanders Fields". McCrae had noted how wild red poppies beautifully grew around the grave of his friend and the graves of others who had died at Ypres, realizing that wild poppies grow best in disturbed soil.
Wilfred Owen, one of the leading poets of WWI, was a British soldier fighting in France, and he wrote his poems during his time as a soldier. Sadly, while serving as the commander of a rifle company in France he was killed in action just one week before the Armistice (i.e. the end of the war), during the battle to cross the Sambre-Oise Canale in Ors, France.
The deeply moving poetry by these two World War I soldiers, helps remind me of
Many people in Commonwealth countries and Canada wear a Red Poppy pin on November 11, called Remembrance Day/ Armistice Day; the official date to remember the end of WWI, as hostilities formally ended "at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month", and also an official remembrance of the soldiers who fought. They are also worn to a lesser extent on Memorial Day in the U.S. and sometimes on Veterans Day (In the U.S., Veterans day, which always coincides with the anniversary of the end of WWI, celebrates the service of ALL U.S. military veterans, while Memorial Day is the day to remember those who died while serving).
The origin of wearing a red poppy was inspired when McCrae's poem, "In Flanders Fields", became popular:
We are the Dead. Short days ago
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)