Somber Veterans Day

Recently I gave a brief history lesson about Veterans Day to Wesleyan School students, alumni, and family. This is an excerpt of that speech:

As most know, Veterans Day grew out of the commemoration Armistice Day, the moment when the fighting of World War I ended.

After World War I, President Wilson proclaimed that the first anniversary after the war’s end would be commemorated with an Armistice Day holiday. It remained as such until President Eisenhower issued the first Veterans Day Proclamation in 1954 which stated: “In order to insure proper and widespread observance of this anniversary, all veterans, all veterans’ organizations, and the entire citizenry will wish to join hands in the common purpose. Toward this end, I am designating the Administrator of Veterans’ Affairs as Chairman of a Veterans Day National Committee, which shall include such other persons as the Chairman may select, and which will coordinate at the national level necessary planning for the observance. I am also requesting the heads of all departments and agencies of the Executive branch of the Government to assist the National Committee in every way possible.”

The most vivid and enduring symbol of Veterans Day is of course the poppy. These hardy flowers bloom in springtime and were first apparent in the spring of 1915 in the battlefields of France and Belgium. They were particularly apparent in the Dutch-speaking part of northern Belgium, Flanders, a site of some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting on the western front for World War I.

Their color is blood red and gave the impression that the battlefield was stained, quite literally, with blood of the thousands of soldiers who died on the fields. This phenomena was noticed by a Canadian medical officer named John McCrea. McCrea saw action early on in WWI at the second battle for the Belgian town of Ypres. His friend had been killed and in response he penned the famous poem, In Flanders Fields:

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.

Although McCrea’s famous poem has a suitably reverential tone, the final stanza urges those who live on to keep fighting:

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.

Veterans Day is a somber occasion, as it should be. It neither glorifies war nor those who fight it. It does, however, remember the sacrifice.