Standing against tyrants remains our burden, a century after 'Great War'

Standing against tyrants remains our burden, a century after 'Great War'
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In the spring of 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, a Canadian army doctor and officer wrote a poem that would become one of the most famous writings in military history.

Despite differing accounts of the circumstances surrounding the poem’s origin — some say author John McCrae wrote it for consolation following the death of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, while others say McCrae wrote the poem to pass the time between treating patients — the poem struck a chord with its readers. Titled “In Flanders Fields” and published in Punch magazine in December 1915, McCrae’s stirring words would be an early indicator of the terrible cost to be wrought by the First World War.

It’s worth quoting in full:

"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 piece paints a gut-wrenching picture, and it’s understandable why. The Second Battle of Ypres has the dark distinction of being the first German mass use of poison gas on the Western Front. In a single battle, more than 60,000 French and British soldiers died — more than all the American casualties in the entire Vietnam War.

In a letter to his mother, McCrae described the horrors of trench warfare. “The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare,” he wrote. “We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … . And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”

Fallen soldiers were buried in makeshift graves marked by wooden crosses, in poppy fields near an area commonly referred to as Flanders — hence the poem’s name.

The piece’s melancholic beginning lines are unique. Death is an uncomfortable topic, and when writing about death, it is often difficult to strike the correct balance between mourning a loss and celebrating a life. This is especially true if the dead were relative strangers, as most of the soldiers who volunteered to serve in World War I were to John McCrae.

Yet McCrae rose to the challenge. Where mortality in the abstract normally rouses fear and dread, McCrae, in two sentences, introduced readers for all future time to the brave soldiers who paid a staggering price for an idea much bigger than themselves. The potency of McCrae’s words is in their relatability: Our war dead today also lived and felt the warmth of dawn after cold nights. They, too, found comfort and beauty in sunset’s radiant glow. They, too, felt love’s bond in their families, friends and countrymen. And they, too, said goodbye, without knowing it, for the last time.

But in the poem’s closing lines, we find comfort — inspiration, even. Having given their life, those buried at Flanders remind us of the promise borne by their sacrifice: That their death was to protect what is good in the world.

As they always have, bad men will, from time to time, conspire to test our people’s resolve in that good. And they will, tragically, claim the lives of our sons and daughters before taking their rightful place among history’s foulest villains.

That is our burden to bear. We must take up the quarrel with the foe and hold the torch high. Hold it high so the world may have a place where freedom flourishes. Hold it high as a beacon for those still trapped by darkness elsewhere. Hold it high so those living at home, and the dead buried abroad, may sleep in peace.

A century has passed since the cannons fell silent in Europe. A generation was lost, but a new one proudly stands watch.

Thomas N. Wheatley is an active duty U.S. Army judge advocate and an editor of the Journal of Law, Policy & Military Affairs. He holds a law degree and a baccalaureate degree in homeland security. Follow him on Twitter @TNWheatley. The opinions expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Department of Defense.