As the United States commemorates Veterans Day, the peoples of the United Kingdom and the nations of the Commonwealth keep Remembrance Day. Wherever this day may find us, and on whichever side of the Atlantic, we all join the various affected nations of a once war-torn Europe in pausing to remember that great moment of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which at long last brought armistice and peace — a peace however tenuous and precarious — and which brought with it a very great joy to those who had known unspeakable sorrows.
Let us pause today to remember, with thankfulness, all those who have served — for they did so in order that peoples suffering through a time of war could find again peace and freedom. Let us also pause to remember all those who suffered and died in what was called “the war to end all wars.” Sadly, as we know all too well, it wasn’t.
In speaking of “The Great War,” all who fought in it are now part of humanity’s history; they are no longer in our midst, even if they themselves survived and went on to live the longest of lives. Rare indeed is the person still with us who has living memories of that struggle on the European Continent and beyond, the centenary of which we are living and keeping in these very years.
Today it is now for us, the living, to keep alive the flame of gratitude and of remembrance for those who served, and especially those who died, so that others might be free. We remember today the unspeakable toll of that conflict and the conflicts that would follow. We pause to appreciate the tremendous sacrifices that were made — not only of the young who died but also of the families who were deprived of those they loved as well as remembering those whose lives would never be the same for what they had lived. All of these have now passed on the torch of remembrance and of gratitude to us, the living of today.
During World War I, my great uncle served in the United States Army, in its medical corps, just as would, a generation later, my father and my uncle. They were part of the great effort of the Allies to liberate Europe. For generations younger than mine, the events of 100 or even 75 years ago must seem very remote and disconnected from our contemporary lives. Nevertheless, it is not actually so, for these conflicts profoundly and irrevocably touched people to whom we are actually remarkably close, both in generations and in time.
Let us all pause for a moment today, whether we call our observance Armistice Day, Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day. Let us pause in gratitude for all those who wore the uniform of their country — and to honor in a most special way those who gave the last full measure of devotion in making what is, for every human being, the ultimate sacrifice. There are so many who lie near the fields where they fell in battle, never to see again the land they loved or those family and friends that they had left behind but with such hope of finding once more after their service would finally be over.
On this unique and singular day, my thoughts are filled with Washington, DC, and her memorials to the fallen and those who served — and of Arlington Cemetery, where so many heroes of our nation have been laid to rest. But my thoughts are also back in London, at the Cenotaph that commemorates those who served — as also at the tomb of the unknowns who lie in rest within Westminster Abbey. These and other special places remain very dear to me, as they are to all those of my ancestral homeland. One can also never forget the various memorials and the hallowed resting places of the fallen in many parts of Europe where I lived. These remain cherished by the Europeans of today who still remember the great price that was once paid by so many.
The passage of time can dim from our collective memory the rows upon rows of the graves of our countrymen who are now buried in various memorial cemeteries in the lands where they died in the battles of war. While these places are hallowed and treasured for the generations descended from those liberated by the heroic brave, they deserve to be remembered by all of us. They must remain sacred to us who are more distant and do not see them in the midst of daily lives. Whether we can visit these overseas cemeteries of our fallen soldiers actually or only virtually via the Internet, we can pause, at least today, to remember and be grateful.
A hundred years ago, a young Canadian serving as a brigade doctor wrote a few lines of poetry in tribute to a fallen comrade in arms. Major John McCrae’s poem has become a singular voice that has spoken for so many and to so many. In a few powerful lines, we hear one young man speaking for a generation of young men. They traveled far from home to save peoples they had never met and lands they had never experienced — and their voices fell forever silent in their selfless effort.
A hundred years later, Major McCrae’s lines remain as poignant and as touching as they were when he first spoke them over an open grave or when later they were read or heard. Even if today they may not evoke the particular face of a friend or loved one who left and may or may not have come back home, they speak to us of the sacrifice of those who have given all. His eloquent lines, then and now, remain a wonderful way to remember and to be grateful.
And so on this day, wherever we may be, let us meet in the very special fields that straddle Belgium and France. Let us hear a young soldier’s voice from the Western Front tell us once again that the effort of a generation to bring peace to those suffering from war was one they did not finish. No, it is an effort they have entrusted to us, to bring to completion what they began. This is their charge, and this is the torch they have passed to us:
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.
[Poem of Major John McCrae, composed May 1915]