One would be hard-pressed to find an adult educated in a Canadian primary school who could not recite at least the first line of In Flanders Fields by Major John McCrae. The poem stands not only as a seminal piece of Canadian art, but as a pillar of Canadian culture: introducing the poppy as Canada’s unique contribution to honouring and remembering our war veterans. The words are poignant and graceful, and I hope today’s schoolchildren are still taught this piece of historical art.
But as a recruit at RMC almost fifteen years ago, I discovered another lesser-known poem that expressed my feelings of remembrance in a far more personal way. Its opening lines are inscribed upon the Memorial Arch:
BLOW out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.
Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.
Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.
- Rupert Brooke
The late Air Commodore Len Birchall, Canadian war hero and Saviour of Ceylon, remarked upon the power of these words to give “strength in adversity”:
As every ex-cadet also well knows, we memorized every word on the Arch and were able to recite them at a moments notice for anyone who asked to hear them, especially our seniors. Thus these inscriptions became an integral part of my life. ...I recall those horrible days as a POW during World War II. The suffering, pain, torture, starvation, sickness, beatings and living as animals through which we tried to exist. When, after fighting the good fight with everything within our poor emaciated bodies, and even after dredging up that final bit of reserve which we never knew we had, still it was not enough for some of us and we would have to say good-bye to comrades as they left us. It was then that those words on the Arch came to shine before me with their true meaning. As we carried out the blanket covered bodies I found myself silently reciting that memorable inscription:
Blow out you bugles over the rich dead,
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old
But dying has made us rarer gifts than gold.
Today, as I try to every day, I will remember with respect, admiration, sorrow and awe those who dug the wells of liberty from which I drink. I will say a prayer, and thank them with my words and in my heart. And I will renew my vow to defend the freedoms they bought for me at so dear a cost.
Blow, bugles, blow!
Update: I have removed the comments from this post, as I felt the discussion had strayed into disrespect for our veterans. To those who were trying to engage me in a debate over whether Nazi Germany posed a threat to Canadian freedom: go elsewhere. I'm sure there are blogs where you can have that debate, but this is not one of them.