The enduring legacy of ‘In Flanders Fields’


OTTAWA – A century after it was written, “In Flanders Fields” — the solemn lament of war, sacrifice and obligation by John McCrae that’s carved into the marble masonry of Parliament Hill’s Peace Tower — will find new life Wednesday among schoolchildren who will recite its haunting refrain.

Few other works of battlefield art are as poignant or as famous — indeed, as Wednesday’s now-familiar Remembrance Day proceedings will make clear, none of the bloody conflicts of the past decade have produced anything that comes close.

McCrae — a colonel, a surgeon and artillery field officer — wrote the poem in the midst of mourning the death of a close friend following the Second Battle of Ypres in late April 1915.

It was published later that year to wide acclaim; many credit it with inspiring Britain, Canada and other Commonwealth countries to adopt the poppy as symbol of sacrifice.

Its personal sentiment and haunting symbolism are why the poem has its own special place in the pantheon of great art and literature that was born out of the suffering of the First World War.

McCrae’s poem was a response to newly emerging questions about the meaning of war and the need to keep fighting, said Adam Muller, a professor at the University of Manitoba who researches how war is represented in art.

The same questions weren’t being asked of Canada’s fight in Afghanistan, which is why the artistic answers are different as well.

“These are peripheral representations; they don’t strike at the core of our day-to-day life in the way that something like ‘Flanders Fields’ did,” he said.

“And I think also there’s prevailing ambivalence about Canadian involvement in that war … we find evidence of this ambivalence in the art that has been produced to date as well. It’s not clear cut. Say what you like about McCrae, he’s clear cut. ”

It’s one of the reasons it still resonates 100 years later and why the Vimy Foundation, which is committed to preserving the legacy of Canada’s greatest First World War battle, has challenged classrooms from coast to coast to recite it.

Kathleen Pick, a Grade 12 student at Ottawa’s John McCrae Secondary School — named after the poet-soldier — says since 9/11 she is hard-pressed to point to any enduring artistic expression of this generation’s wars.

Part of it may be that society looks at war differently than it did a century ago and people today — bombarded by images of conflict in the news and movies — may have become numb, or indifferent.

“Our perception of war has definitely changed as a society,” said Pick.

“We don’t see it as the same series of tragedies that it was in the First World War and I don’t think people recognize exactly how devastating the wars of today can still be to people.”

In the U.S., there is a growing body of art reflecting on the American side of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of which that has won major awards, said retired U.S. Army officer Peter Molin, who teaches at Rutgers University and runs the website Time Now, about how those two wars are represented in art, film and literature.

A major difference from past wars is that most of the poems and novels aren’t about life on the battlefield, but what happens after.

Some are driven by veterans using government funds to return to school, taking classes that inspire their work. The dissonant nature of poetry from the battlefield also means many wait until they get home to put pen to paper, Molin said.

“It’s only afterwards you take off the kid gloves and you can get a little tougher with your thoughts about things.”

McCrae’s poem is carved into a serene alcove in the Peace Tower, amid the stained glass and marble of the Memorial Chamber, where books of the country’s war dead reside on six newly reconstructed altars.

Johanna Mizgala, curator of the House of Commons, said she believes it will take society a few years to sort through the trauma of the last decade before perhaps producing a lasting work of art akin to McCrae’s.

“I think it’s very difficult to translate profound grief and loss into something, (because) it’s a question of making an absence into a presence and something that is it sometimes almost too hard to put into words,” said Mizgala.

“So, if we don’t compose a poem for today, perhaps there will be some other sign or symbol. It may take a while for something to take hold, but that’s the thing about this poem.

“It wasn’t written to become the anthem that it became. It just resonated so profoundly with people. Often, it’s the grassroots that tells us when something has poignancy or not.”

While there may yet have been no great modern-day expressions of battle-borne art, there are quiet, individual contributions.

Dominion sculptor Phil White designed and built the altars that hold the books of remembrance. It took him two years to get the design and construction just right so that it reflected the original architect’s solemn vision for the chamber.

There are little touches here and there, such as the poppies integrated into the legs of the altars, which add to the remote, pastoral air the designer envisioned.

“I have relatives whose names are inscribed in those books,” said White, who spent part of his career at the Canadian War Museum preserving history there.

“So, to me, I could think of no more important thing I could do with my career than honour the names of the people who gave their lives.”