Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day: Remembering the Fallen

Today is Memorial Day, a day to honor soldiers who died in war.

I had two brothers in the U. S. Military. One served during a time of peace, and the other served in Vietnam. I remember the family worry while my brother was overseas, how my mother couldn’t bear hearing the reported body counts on the nightly news, how she was so fearful of seeing a Marine Chaplin pull into our driveway. Luckily her son, my brother, returned safely home. Many, many sons and brothers did not.

Memorial Day was established in 1868 as the national day to decorate the graves of the Civil War soldiers with flowers. Arlington National Cemetery, which housed graves of over 20,000 soldiers, held the first observance of the day on a grand scale. Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the event near the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion. Speeches were followed by a march of soldiers' children and orphans and members of the army through the cemetery strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves. They recited prayers and sang hymns for the dead. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by Congress, who designated the last Monday in May as the day for its observance.

Many writers and poets have been voices for war, some who experienced war first hand. Often referred to as the war poet, Wilfred Owen was a British soldier and poet who wrote shockingly honest poetry about war in the trenches during World War I. But John McCrae and his poem In Flanders Fields is likely one of the most recognized. McCrae was a Canadian poet, surgeon, artist, and Lieutenant Colonel during World War I. McCrae wrote the poem in 1915 after witnessing the death of his friend on the battlefield. The poppies referred to in the poem grew profusely in the disturbed soil of battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders where casualties of war were buried.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

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.

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.

The poem In Flanders Fields inspired the poppy movement promoted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) of the United States. Selling replicas of the original Flanders' poppy originated in some of the allied countries immediately after the Armistice. The VFW was the first veteran organization to promote a nationally organized campaign for the annual distribution of poppies assembled by disabled and needy veterans.

Have a peaceful Memorial Day.

Memorial Day
In Flanders Fields
Wilfred Owen
Veterans of Foreign Wars


elizabethbrinton said...

I still have the poem in my memory banks as we used to recite it in school. This spring, the last veteran of the Great War left this earth. No survivors remain. It is a significant milestone.
Thank you for this thoughtful, and evocative post.

Jennifer Rova said...

What a wonderful post! It was so well written and evocative of the memorializing soldiers' efforts adn reminders to remember them. How you tied in the writing aspect with the famous poem we all memorized was beautiful. Having intimate memories of the Viet Nam war, I can empathize with your family's worries about a family member's joyous return "to the home hearth".