Blood red poppies

Remembrance Day

Every year, as October transitions into November, I go in search of a new red poppy pin in honour of Remembrance Day on November 11. It is a tradition in my family and across Canada to append the crimson flower to our lapel as a reminder of the bloody sacrifices made a century ago.

I also wear it to honour my great-grandfather Francis Sowden, who came home from the Great War, unlike so many others, including siblings on my great-grandmother’s side who are sadly just names without faces to me so many years later.

I am one of few in my generation to have known Francis Sowden.

I am one of few in my generation to have known Francis Sowden.

Recently, I have heard people complain that the commemorative symbol of the poppy has been co-opted by those who want to hail it as a symbol of the glory of serving in the military, if not actually the glory of war itself. This bothers me.

I greatly thank all those who have, do and will serve in the military both in Canada and abroad, many risking their lives to keep others safe. Although I was an unthinking idiot in my youth, I have learned that these people, while frail humans, are noble titans who see conflict as a last resort.

For all that nobility, however, the poppy must remain a separate symbol.

A painting from the Royal Ontario Museum that haunts my dreams. (sadly, I cannot remember artist)

A painting from the Royal Ontario Museum that haunts my dreams. (sadly, I cannot remember artist)

The poppy reminds us of the horrific toll of war. It is a crimson stain upon our lapels that taints us all and reminds us of the fragility of the peace that surrounds us. The bloody hue taunts our civilized smugness with a warning of how easily we can fall into the pit of violence, whether as individuals, communities or countries.

While we wear the blood red poppy to honour the fallen of World War I, we also wear it as a badge of shame that the war ever took place, and that the war to end all wars wasn’t.

This dual purpose must never be diminished. We must strive to be better.

And next year, as October transitions into November, I will go in search of a new red poppy pin in honour of Remembrance Day on November 11.

I will never forget.

A cemetery near my home reminds me of the sacrifices

A cemetery near my home reminds me of the sacrifices

Trench – A short story (Part Two)

trench2

(Click here for Part One)

At the sound of distant splashing, Francis opened his eyes. His face had slowly deformed the mud until it almost seemed a mask in which he might have suffocated. Trying to turn his head, he winced. Somewhere in the night, it seemed, his bones and muscles had fused to become an almost immobile mass.

Slowly, painfully, he pulled his arms to his chest and pushed himself up onto his knees. His body wanted to scream but his instincts said he needed to remain silent.

His world was a grey cloud. As it often did, a heavy morning fog had settled into the trenches, blurring the lines of reality and imagination, preventing the senses from reaching more than a half-dozen feet in any direction. The light said it was day, but that was where his universe stopped.

The splash sounded again, closer. Francis had seconds to debate friend or foe. He opted for safety, launching himself across the gap to the other side of the trench, burying himself behind the remnants of crates. Silence was key.

German voices pierced the fog. At least he assumed they were German. He knew Welsh and English, but just enough of the words sounded familiar to suggest he wasn’t hearing French.

His heart was ready to explode and he willed his breathing to calm, the rapid exhalations forming eddies in the fog that he was sure would give away his position.

From the mists, two boys in German uniforms emerged, poking their rifles into the detritus that lined the trench, presumably looking for food or ammo. They plodded through the puddles, secure in each other’s company, unaware of the din they created.

One soldier cried out and attacked the side of the trench.

His compatriot turned to find him tugging at the buried corpse. Placing his rifle to one side, he joined the other and between the two of them, they pulled the dead soldier out, the mud protesting their invasion with a loud sucking noise.

The first soldier reached inside the dead man’s great coat, feeling around blindly until his hand lighted on his quarry. Smiling at his partner, he extracted a sodden square of leather, teasing apart its folds and sliding out military script. His partner, meanwhile, was filling his pockets with items from the dead man’s kit.

Francis watched the vultures loot the corpse, his mind racing to comprehend the incomprehensible. This was one of their own.

He was as surprised as the German soldiers when the chest of one caved in at the bullet wound. The recoil of his rifle telling Francis that he had pulled the trigger.

By the time the unwounded soldier figured things out and was rising to his feet, he too found himself with a bullet in the chest. He gaped at Francis, who slowly emerged from his hiding place, and his eyes rolled into his head as he fell to his knees and then face down in the mud.

Francis shook, bracing himself against the crates lest he too collapse into the puddle. The dead soldiers—the men he had killed—lay at his feet. Francis tried to feel anguish at his crime. He tried to feel joy at his survival. He felt nothing.

Not cold. Not wet. Not even numb. His world had closed in on him, smothering him.

This was the first time Francis had fired in battle, all previous conflicts amounting to little more than scurrying from trench to trench, fox hole to fox hole, keeping you head low lest it be removed. The first time Francis had taken a human life, and yet he was intrigued that he felt no different than had he just slaughtered a hog for its meat or put down a rabid dog.

Francis dragged the soldiers onto their drowned comrade, laying their rifles next to them. He then stood silently, scanning the air for any sound, the splash of footsteps racing to the rifle shots. He heard nothing.

He pulled aside the coat of one soldier to find a filthy uniform underneath, not just torn in places but the material actually rotting away. A photo dangled precariously from the soldier’s pocket. He retrieved it and saw a youth, the soldier, standing in front of a portly woman near a well. He wondered if this was the boy’s mother. Flipping it over, the back was inscribed with German.

Without knowing why, Francis pocketed the photo and rose to his feet. As he lifted and flipped over the soldier’s military kit, he was startled by the rumble of artillery in the mists far ahead. The line had apparently moved in the night. Time to rejoin his unit.

Shouldering the German kit and his rifle, Francis stepped over the fallen soldiers, picked his way past the puddles and dissolved into the mists.

*****

Two months ago, while organizing my grandmother’s things after her funeral, I found an ancient, moth-eaten bag in her attic. Opening it, I discovered a German bible and a mixture of English and German war rations, as well as a photograph of a boy and his mother.

The back was inscribed in German, which I asked a neighbour to translate for me.

“Be safe, my beloved boy, and come home soon. Mama.”

No name. No date. Just a message of love and worry.

That my great-grandfather had his kit and photo suggested the boy did not make it home and his mother’s heart broke.

I keep the photo with me as a constant reminder of the sacrifices made on both sides. Sacrifices that let me lead the life I do.

I will never forget that.

 

Please note: This story is a fiction, although my great-grandfather Francis Sowden did serve in the first World War.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission, but utmost respect and reverence.)

Lest we forget: Thanking the fallen

Remembrance Day Poppy

On November 11th in Canada, we take a moment out of our day at 11am to remember those who have fallen in war to define and defend our rights and freedoms as a nation and a people. We call it Remembrance Day and in the British tradition, we symbolize it with a poppy.

I am of the fortunate age that while I never had to experience the terror of war myself, I am old enough to have spoken with many of my family members who have served in the Canadian military both in times of war and in times of peace.

My great grandfather Francis Sowden served in the First World War, the war whose Armistice Day we commemorate. My grandfather Allan Eby served in the Second World War as part of the Canadian forces that invaded Italy and freed the region from Nazi occupation. Similarly, my great uncles served in the military, one making it his career.

Each man had his own experiences. Each man could relate his own stories.

I remember fondly, when I grew old enough to understand, listening to my grandfather relate his experiences; in some ways, his greatest days and in others, his worst. In his own gentle way, he taught a brash young know-it-all with all the answers on the failure of war a thing or two about life and the need to defend freedom when called upon.

Beloved and missed

As I visited my grandparents’ gravesite the other day, I came upon the graves of several other soldiers, their tombstones clearly marked, their ranks smartly inscribed. And I stopped for a moment to thank them for their sacrifices.

It was only then that I noticed a monument atop a hill, something I had never seen before, that paid homage to the fallen. A soldier with bowed head. Very humbling.

To the men and women who sacrificed everything for my home, I thank you.

To the men and women who served bravely or waited nervously for family members to return home, I thank you.

To my friends who continue to serve for Canada or any other country, I thank you.

As long as I am alive, your story will not go unheard or unremembered.