The Poppies in My Lapel Bit

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London.

I slumbered while we cruised the Dardanelles…

I can’t believe it’s already (nearly) November! And within this eleventh month is the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day” – a time and date set aside to mark the end of World War I.  As the distance between us and that moment nears a century and several generations, how do we call to mind another important event that’s drifting beyond the scope of living memory?

I wasn’t around that long ago (although I’m getting to feel like my knees were…) but, luckily, a few life experiences help me span that distance so that I can remember too.

It’s known as Veterans Day here in the US – and it’s evolved into a day for honoring American veterans of all wars.

Dad the WWII vet!

Some of my deepest connections to the eleventh day have come through traveling – and quite by accident!  But that often happens with me.

Like my first time visiting Canada on Remembrance Day.  I went to play ice hockey and came home not just with one of my happiest tournament experiences, but also with the meaning behind the poppies I saw people wearing – and an appreciation for a poem.

While watching NHL games, I’d already noticed bright red poppies on the lapels of Canadian broadcasters this time of year – then I saw tons of them as I roamed the streets of Vancouver between games.  I didn’t know how the poppies were connected with Remembrance Day until I found a display in a local museum that included the poem  “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian physician John McCrae.  While serving in The Great War, he penned the haunting poem after the death in battle of a fellow countryman and, in it, he invokes the image of poppies blowing in the breeze among rows of crosses marking soldiers’ graves.

Now whenever I see a red poppy, I remember those soldiers and the duty to them that McCrae’s poem commands.

Films have also expanded my image of the First World War.  We’re now a century removed from the grisly battles around the Belgian village of Passchendaele – but depictions in Canadian Paul Gross’s 2008 film of the same name bring to heartbreaking life the trials faced and sacrifice displayed there.

And back in 1981, Australian Peter Weir’s Gallipoli proved a gripping education for the teenaged me in the events and nature of war.   Sporting a brand new driver’s license, I’d proudly driven with Mum to a little theatre in Berkeley to follow the journey of two young Aussies to World War I’s Turkish front.  Like some of the film’s characters, I’m afraid I didn’t know much about why Australian boys would be fighting in Turkey – and I’d have stumbled as they did over the names of towns where battles were being fought.

But ever after, names like Gallipoli remain devastatingly clear to me.  And in the wake of the film’s final tragic moments, I remember on the ride home keeping my new driver’s hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel while my shoulders still heaved with sobs as I thought on the terrible cost of war.

Some years later, a chance experience in London would bring that film to mind and hit me just as hard.

On November 11, 2003 – Armistice Day in Britain – I was in the middle of what I refer to as “the walk”.  Being fortunate to have visited London a fair number of times over the years, it’s become a ritual for me to get re-acquainted with my most favorite city and all its historic splendor by strolling from Leicester Square to Trafalgar Square and on down to Westminster Bridge on the River Thames.

On this day, I’d begun as usual by hitting the Leicester Square discount ticket booth to get a seat for a West End play (Stones in His Pockets – a hilariously poignant night of theatre!).

Nelson’s Column.

Next, I made my way to Trafalgar Square where I gave my customary salute to Admiral Nelson – as well as to local efforts at keeping the Square’s pigeon population under control.  Then I continued down Whitehall, knowing I’d catch such sights as a resolute pair of Horse Guards keeping watch at their building, and perhaps some political doings outside Number 10 Downing Street.

I planned to hang the typical left at Parliament Square and head for the Thames – but this time, a different scene gave me pause.  According to my journal, here’s what I’d unwittingly (well, half-wittingly, anyway) strolled into:

“Walked by the stone monument to “The Glorious Dead” [the Cenotaph] where the Queen and Prime Minister had lain wreaths.  There was a bit of a crowd and I thought I’d be a stationary lemming and wait to see what happened.

Shortly before 11:00, traffic was stopped and the music of a lone bagpipe began.  To that melancholy sound, four young guards led a procession of gray-haired veterans, some wives and some little children.  Then everything stopped and silence was largely managed down to the sound of falling yellow leaves lighting on the ground.”

From the first forlorn strains of that bagpipe, my eyes were as misty as the London weather – and it wouldn’t be the only time that day.  After completing “the walk”, my contentedly aimless wandering continued to pay off as I stumbled onto another landmark of the day:

“I’d heard the Queen was spending her 11th hour opening a memorial for Australian soldiers – and I came across it!  At Hyde Park by the Wellington Arch, they were just taking down the guest chairs around a red carpet leading to the memorial – a long wall with water flowing down some of the panels.  It’s of green-gray granite on which the names of cities where Aussie veterans hailed from are etched, and over those the names of battles where they fought.”

Australian War Memorial, London.

Wandering along the newly dedicated monument, I studied each of the wreaths and little mementos that people must just have placed there – vivid color against the somber stone.

Wreaths at the Memorial.

I was especially struck by the photo of a fresh-faced young Aussie veteran.  I hoped he’d gotten to live a long and happy life as my dear veteran Dad had – but probably he’d been among the fallen.  I imagined how some family, feeling their loss of him as keenly as if it had just happened, might have traveled a great way to leave that photo and show they yet remembered his service.

Mementos at the Memorial.

And a few years ago, having packed with me these bits of World War I perspective, I was thrilled to embark with my generous folks on a fancy Mediterranean cruise that would stop in a couple Turkish ports!  On reading details in the brochure, including how the bed sheets would have a 300 thread count, I saw that en route between Kusadasi and Istanbul we’d be sailing through the Dardanelles past Gallipoli – something I sure never figured I’d do in my life!

Following our cruise on the stateroom tv!

I didn’t bother to count threads but, on charting the course of our travels, I was disappointed to discover that our ship would pass that area in the middle of the night.  Here was one of those historic places where destiny-shaping battles were waged and lives forever altered and lost – and I was meant to sail past it snuggled comfortably between 300 count sheets!

I thought of trying to stay up and see what part of the coastline might be visible by night but, in the end –  and as much as I wanted it to be otherwise – I slumbered while we cruised the Dardanelles…

I think it’s easy to become insulated that way from the past and its lessons.  But, with a wealth of experiences through literature, film, travel and more than a little serendipity, I know at least some of what was happening in the world just about a hundred years ago, and I try to keep learning.

Those experiences are like poppies for my lapel – and, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, they’ll aid me in remembering as I ought to.

29 comments

  1. Enjoyed reading your post. There are so many poignant memories of WWI, it is a wonder the message that war only causes more problems is still ignored. My father was wounded on the Somme – bur I had to learn about the war from books. Those who took part were understandably reticent about their experiences – expect to their former mates. Des.

    1. Thank you for reading! Yes, it’s sad that many from previous generations didn’t share more of what they experienced and endured – it would have been good to know.

  2. At high school in Australia on Anzaac Day some poor old chap would come along to talk about being at Gallippoli, but we didn’t really understand where it was or why the Australians were there; the film Gallipoli brought it home. Meanwhile, by the time we were in college we were angry that everyone was still talking about Gallipoli while never mentioning that Aussie soldiers were being killed in Vietnam; another war we didn’t understand. A very poignant piece.

    1. I haven’t seen it yet but I’m looking forward to watching a Ken Burns documentary about Vietnam as we in the US still grapple with our involvement there. Many thanks for reading!

  3. I was in London in 2014 when they were temporarily filling in the former moat at the Tower of London with thousands of ceramic poppies, one for each of the WWI war dead, to memorialize the anniversary of the start of the war. The poppy field was in progress when I was there in August and even then a very sobering, solemn experience. That November, I saw it online when the last poppy had been put in place. I still get a bit weepy thinking about it. Sadly, the war to end war … didn’t.

    1. Wow…what an image that must have been… And you’re sadly right about the war. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing that experience!

  4. My grandfather served as a private with the Royal Scots Greys (now the Royal Scots Dragons Guards) during World War 1. Wounded at the Second Battle of Ypres, he was invalided home, and lived a full life into his 70s. I keep a little poppy on the dashboard of my truck in remembrance.

    1. Wow, so glad he made it home! And lovely how you keep him in your thoughts with a poppy. Thanks for sharing his story!

  5. Very evocative piece, Amy. I remember as a young boy in about 1958, hearing the sirens wailing and factory whistles blowing at 11:11. We would stop our ball hockey game and all stand quietly for 2 minutes or so. Then on with the game. I think we got a day off school in Toronto in those days. Everyone wore a poppy.

    1. Thanks for reading – and I love the image of a bunch of kids pausing their game like that!

  6. Anzac Day is the one day when Australia and New Zealand forget all the old rivalries and stand together. There are dawn services in both countries, and it is a major day of remembrance. New Zealand lost more men as a percentage of the population than other Commonwealth countries, except the UK.

    1. Wow, didn’t know that about New Zealand… Glad y’all can come together and remember! Thanks for reading and adding your thoughts!

  7. It’s a lovely post, Amy. I didn’t really understand the whole poppy thing either until I moved to Britain. It seems like WWI just didn’t have as much of an impact in the US as it did in the UK and Commonwealth countries, probably because we entered the war so late and lost a much smaller percentage of our population.

    1. Thank you very much! And I think you’re right – I could be forgetting but I recall much more emphasis on our Civil War and WWII in school than on WWI.

  8. Well, I’ve learnt something new – there’s an Australian war memorial in Hyde Park! I must go and see it.

    Thank you for this wonderful, moving post on Remembrance Day from an American visitor’s point of view. The First World War is an important theme in my children’s book, Ante’s Inferno, which opens with a traditional Remembrance ceremony at a school in the UK, with children gathered around the war memorial while someone (12 year-old Antonia, or Ante, here) plays the Last Post. I have heard this has puzzled some American readers – something which never occurred to me, sorry! It just shows how insular one can be…

    1. Thank you for the kind words! And that’s great if your book serves as an introduction for some American kids to an occasion so important in other countries! I’m sure plenty of Americans are in the know but my 11/11 visits were a real education for me – part of why I love to travel! Thanks again for reading and adding your thoughts!

  9. That is such a heartbreaking poem! so beautiful too

    1. It is – very haunting…

  10. Interesting post – I’ve only read a fragment of what went on in the Dardenelles – but if you find that fascinating you would certainly appreciate a trip to Ypres.
    https://snowgood.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/one-time-more-one-time-less/

    1. Thank you – and I’ve never been to Ypres and would love to see that part of the world!

  11. Gosh, those young soldiers make my heart bleed…

    1. Me too… I also sure remember all the red flowers on the graves of Winter War dead throughout Finland.

  12. Eric Bogle’s And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda is, for me, the greatest anti-war song ever written.

    1. Oh my…what a powerful video and moving song.

  13. Thank you for sharing this. Fascinating.

    1. Thanks for reading!

    1. Thank you!

      1. You are welcome…:-)
        and you can visit my blog too…;-),
        inspiringdude.wordpress.com if you find something intrusting then Don’t Forget to follow my Blog…:-)
        Keep in touch…:-)

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