There I sat, with about a hundred poppies coiled in my lap, and looking at ten times that many again in a long string across the tables in the room. Yvonne from my garden club was explaining to us all how local women had been crocheting these beautiful poppies, each about 4 inches in diameter with a black button at its centre, over the last weeks. They are being joined into a long rope, she explained, which will be used to drape across the cenotaph at the upcoming Anzac Day memorial.
I wish I’d taken a photo of the real thing to share with you. I was amazed by the display, as were most of the other women in the room. All these magnificent poppies; all the hours of work to bring them into existence. What were these women thinking of, I wondered, as their fingers whirled around the crochet hook? Was their zeal inspired by working together to create something as a community? Or by the fallen Diggers being commemorated by the service? Or by the desire to make a statement about peace, and war? Whatever the inspiration, the long chain spoke a fervent message. The individual whispers of crochet hooks tugging at red wool added up to this passionate declaration.
But what was it saying?
Poppies bring to mind the memorial services of my youth: Remembrance Day, it’s called in Canada, and it happens on November 11th (the date of the signing of the armistice at the end of WW1). As school children, we stood absolutely still at 11:00 a.m. and for two minutes of silence thought about the soldiers who died defending our country. And then we solemnly, often with tears in our eyes, recited in unison the poem which in the northern hemisphere is integrally linked to memorial services, In Flanders Fields. Here are the first two stanzas:
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.
Even today, though I am no longer a dewy-eyed teenager, the poem (written in 1915 by Canadian poet and WWI veteran/surgeon John McCrae) moves me. The poppy, blood red and blanketing the war-torn fields of France, has come to represent the sacrifice of the soldiers who also fell in those fields. Yvonne’s thousand poppies were sourced in McCrae’s poem.
The Anzac Legend
It’s a very different experience in Australia. I recall a few months after we first arrived, over 30 years ago, this unfamiliar event called Anzac Day came to my attention. A friend invited us out to the “dawn stand-in”, which involved a pancake breakfast and sounded like an interesting experience for the kids. As you might expect, it was much more than that. I was deeply touched by the alienness of the ceremony, and especially by all these old men who stood silent and alert, lost in their thoughts.
Some background for those of you who aren’t natives of Australia or New Zealand: Anzac Day happens on April 25 and is a holiday throughout much of the country. Its purpose is to commemorate the Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in various wars.
The origin of the event goes back 100 years. At dawn on the 25th of April, 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers stormed the shores of Gallipoli, with the intention of quickly capturing Constantinople in order to keep the Black Sea open for the Allied navies. Eight months later, with the campaign hopelessly bogged down and some 12,000 Aussies and Kiwis dead, the forces were evacuated. But that outcome could not have predicted the profound impact the event had at home. April 25 immediately became a day of celebrating the astonishing “digger” spirit, with their “endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour, and mateship” in the face of horrific battlefield conditions.
In spite of the horror of all the deaths, something magical happened on that battlefield. Somehow it created the Anzac Legend, whereby these “knights of Gallipoli” became a symbol of how Australians and New Zealanders regarded themselves—so that even today, with all the diggers long dead, people still gather in parks and war memorials for the dawn service, with its two minutes of silence and the lone bugler playing the Last Post and the Reveille. In the Australian tradition, the service sometimes includes the “gunfire breakfast” – coffee with a good shot of rum, as was the practice before the soldiers faced battle and sometimes certain death.
For decades, the day and its ceremonies were core to the heart of Australians and New Zealanders. During the 70s and 80s, the impact of Anzac Day dwindled, perhaps due to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. That trend has been reversed in recent decades, and crowds again swell the memorial services.
The real digger message
But here’s the thing. Until I began reading about the “Anzac legend”, I hadn’t realised that, as the diggers grew old and became rare and famous, many of them spent their airtime on an anti-war message. The last digger to die, in 2002, Alec Campbell, was typical. He attended services and surrendered to interviews until his death. His conclusion, as expressed at age 103 on the eve of his last Anzac Day, was this:
Campbell is also the one who famously said, “Politicians make up the wars. They don’t go to them.”
That comment needs no elaboration.
The poem In Flanders Fields ends like this:
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.
I’m no longer fond of this last stanza. Better the poet advised us, “Patch up our quarrel with the foe…”
This, I’ve decided, is the message of the poppies.
It seems to be what the diggers, seasoned as they were in war, hard slogging, mateship and sacrifice, came to realise. They could help write a better ending.