Friday, 9 November 2012

The answer is still blowing in the wind

This weekend it's Remembrance Sunday, marking the day when hostilities ceased on November 11th, 1918. It is still observed throughout the Commonwealth, often with poppies as a symbol of lost lives, so I thought I'd reflect that by giving this week's post a Commonwealth theme.

I'll start with a quote: 'We marched through the lands all red with red poppies.' This was written to a friend in 1916 by a South African soldier whose letters are almost childlike in their wonder at nature. Nicknamed 'Pansy' for that reason, he never stopped enjoying the lovelier things in life despite the mud and guns he faced on the Western Front. But sadly he survived only three months in France before being killed at Delville Wood on July 19th, 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. His moving letters will be included in my book.

South Africa was just one of the 'Empire' countries which rallied to the Allied cause during the Great War - Australia and New Zealand were two more, of course. So I'm pleased to give a big welcome to scores of newcomers to my blog from Downunder, whose interest was registered on my 'blog statistics page' this week after an appeal for WW1 letters was published in the magazine Inside History (left). I've already had a marvellous response with some fascinating letters, so thankyou very much. 

I'm now on the lookout for correspondence written between 1914-18 by servicemen from India, another 'Empire' country which made huge sacrifices during the Great War. If you have any letters, cards or notes I would be delighted to hear from you. Please drop me an email at

And so back to Remembrance Day and the poppies which flowered all over the battlefields in the spring of 1915 after that first terrible winter. It was those poppies that inspired Canadian army officer John McCrae to write his well-loved poem In Flanders Fields (below) after the funeral of a friend who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.

One hundred years later, the final verse doesn't feel quite right any more and I didn't know whether to include it below. Then I realised that without it, John McCrae's friend would have lost his life for nothing, as would all those millions of other men, because there had to be something to fight for. So the verse remains and even though time may have changed our views, we must accept that, in the words of Bob Dylan, the answer is still blowing in the wind.

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.

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.

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