By Shelley Luedtke
Last March the federal government tested new ad campaigns for Remembrance Day. Focus groups in four cities were asked to comment on the content, tone and feeling the ads evoked, and based on their input one of the campaigns was chosen to be the centrepiece for 2018 commemorations.
One of the ads had scenes of people placing poppies on a cenotaph while in the background a verse from "In Flanders Fields" was read. The consulting firm running the focus groups indicated that while some said the ad packed an emotional wallop "at least half the participants in the English sessions did not recognize 'In Flanders Fields', nor did any of the Montreal participants."
I can recall the first time I remember hearing Canadian John McCrae's famous poem. I'd likely heard it at services prior but it stood out for me as a grade 3 student at Central School in Swift Current. My family had recently moved from Alberta so this was my first Remembrance Day service at a new school.
As I walked with my classmates into the gym my eyes quickly focussed on the front of the room. A white cross sat centre stage. At its base were two rifles, a helmet and a gas mask. I likely had little understanding of what those things represented but if I was given those items today I could re-create that scene down to the finest detail because I remember it so clearly. It was grim--so stark in its reality. Of course I wouldn't have described it in those terms as an 8-year old child but I remember feeling chilled by it.
The service proceeded with singing, readings, a moment of silence, and a recitation of "In Flander's Fields" by the grade four class. The following year, as a grade 4 student myself, I stood on that stage with my classmates as it was our turn to recite the poem. Our position put us up close and personal with the same items that were there the year before; rifles, a helmet and a gas mask. Had someone found breath in that mask that now sat mere inches from my small feet? Had that helmet protected a soldier from injury? Those thoughts were interrupted by the motion of our teacher indicating it was time for us to recite McCrae's work.
John McCrae was a doctor and teacher who was described as a man of high principles and strong spiritual values. While training as a doctor he also wrote stories and poems and was published in a variety of magazines.
When the South African War started in 1899 McCrae felt it his duty to go. After serving with his unit for one year he returned to Canada and resumed his work and studies in pathology. In 1914 McCrae was among the 45,000 who signed up within three weeks after Britain declared war on Germany. He was a medical officer with the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery and he treated hundreds of wounded soldiers. Tragically, far too many were dying, including a close friend. The day after his friend was killed he sat down and poured his heart out in a poem, giving voice to the fallen. The poem was published in 1915. It has been translated into many languages and is part of Remembrance Day services not only in Canada but in countries throughout the world.
I was a student at Central School through grade 7 so I listened to three subsequent grade four classes share the poem, all the while saying the words along in my head. We had been taught so well the words were still there. Still are.
On November 11 we are urged to remember. But for those of us who haven't experienced war, we need to learn before we can remember. We need to take the time to hear the stories, read the accounts, and listen to those who know. When we learn--we know. What we know--we can remember.
To the teachers, parents, grandparents, veterans organizations and all others who strive to help us live out 'lest we forget' we say thank you. You have set us on a path of understanding, exploring and trying to grasp what it meant…and what it means.
We may not all be required to memorize a particular poem but we need to ensure we grasp what the poetry, music, stories and remembrances attempt to convey. Lest we forget…lest we stop learning. That's my outlook.
By Shelley Luedtke