I remember in high school when I would walk in silence with my classmates to the gymnasium. We would take a seat on the benches or on the floor. Everyone sitting in an row and all you heard were the sound of footsteps and a few whispers. Everyone wore a red poppy on their shirt.
The gym was usually covered with pieces of paper, coloured as poppies with poems and other messages of remembrance. The school band would play. The principal would give a speech and students would read poems they wrote. Sometimes we had special guests, including Canadian soldiers. Near the end they would play “the song” which would make everyone think in silence.
After high school, there aren’t many organised group memorials. Not many people wear a poppy and sadly, many people only think of it as a day off work or school.
Being in Belgium this year as November 11 approached, I took the opportunity to go visit Flanders’ Fields. The place where the poppies grow. I went to the town of Ieper, known as Ypres at the time of WWI, and as “Wipers” by the British. I visited the Flanders’ Fields Museum and read about how Belgium, a declared neutral country, stood its ground when Germany invaded the country in an attempt to surprise the French (their target). The town of Ypres was defended by Belgians, British, Australians (nearly 10% of the Australian population), New Zealanders and Canadians. Ypres was completely demolished save for a few buildings. The huge cloth hall was burnt, the church behind it, every building was crumbled. Millions of Commonwealth soldiers, French, and Germans died.
There is an arch at the entrance to Ieper with millions of names etched into the white stone of the dead who had known no grave. This arch only gives us an small idea in these times of how many lives were lost. This arch doesn’t include the soldiers who could not be identified or the ones who had a grave.
I visited the Tyne Cot Cemetery close the city of Passendale. Here were hundreds of white stones with the crest of the country they were from. Australians, British, Canadians all side-by-side. Poppies grew in front of the white stones and the cemetery stretched on far too long.
In Flanders fields the poppies grow
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.
Every November 11, from this year on, I will remember the images and sounds I heard in the Flanders’ Fields Museum and remember the endless lists of names on the white arch and the red poppies against the white stones in Tyne Cot.