Art and war have been inseparable in human civilization, mostly in a triumphalist way—war is why The Iliad was written and why the Louvre is stuffed with looted treasures. But modern war, those citizens-in-arms struggles in which death and trauma reached more deeply into more lives than ever before, overturned what we remember about war and the way we remember it. Canadians proved masters at the transition—the Vimy Ridge memorial and its Ottawa counterpart are two of the world’s most beautiful and moving communal remembrance symbols. But irony is Canadian, too, and the nation has always pinned much of its collective memory on a three-stanza poem that meant something far different to the poet than to those who hear it today.
First published on Dec. 8, 1915, “In Flanders Fields” was quickly and enduringly embraced by English Canada. John McCrae’s poem is a foundational brick in the wall of Canadian memory and identity. It’s still capable of inspiring intense responses from Canadian artists and writers, according to Penguin Random House editor Amanda Betts, who assembled a stellar cast of contributors to In Flanders Fields: 100 Years. “I wasn’t sure writers would be interested in the project,” she says, “but they were—really interested. The first person we talked to was Roméo Dallaire, who was passionate about it.” So too proved other contributors, ranging from historian Jonathan Vance to short-story writer Kevin Patterson. A medical doctor like McCrae, Patterson has penned perhaps the most extraordinary piece in the book, an adrenelin-fuelled description of battlefield surgery that channels McCrae and his thinking.
Vance, author of a brilliant study of Canada’s post-Armistice response to the Great War, offers an eye-popping account of the poem’s rapid spread and the many uses to which it was put (including advertising). By 1917 its author was a national icon: The commander of the Canadian Corps, Sir Arthur Currie, gave the eulogy after McCrae died of pneumonia in 1918 while still serving in France. His poem—having cemented the link between poppies and remembrance throughout the British Empire—was present everywhere from New Zealand newspapers to the most divisive election in Canadian history.
In an essay detailing the way the poem was used as war propaganda and a vote-inducing bludgeon in 1917, Mary Janigan notes how spokesmen for Robert Borden’s pro-conscriptionist government would conclude speeches with the final stanza. There was no better rhetorical weapon at hand to emphasize that only traitors and cowards—specifically meaning anti-war Quebecers—“would break faith” with the dead. “I was shocked by some of the pamphlets I read,” says Janigan. “My first thought was always, ‘Was there no one to say you’ve gone too far?’ It reminded me, although at a far remove, of the niqab in this election.”
But the poem, however it was wielded in race-baiting political battle, is actually art, proving itself wonderfully malleable as the war’s meaning evolved in Canadian minds, from the joy of victory to its cost. And it’s the first and, especially, second (“We are the dead”) stanzas that resonate in a country where remembrance now focuses on resolution and sacrifice.
Those stanzas let us remember past suffering without quarrel over reason or meaning. And they also stand as a reproach when we want to deliberately forget, in the way Canadians—including artists—have largely done about our war in Afghanistan and its dead. Playwright Hannah Moscovitch writes about how her play This is War bewildered Canadian audiences averting their eyes from Afghanistan—a shocked incredulity, she says, “not visible when the play opened in Chicago, in a more bellicose culture.” Perhaps that is the final grace of “In Flanders Fields,” and why Remembrance Day wouldn’t be Remembrance Day without it. Lest we forget: Even when we want to, the poem won’t let us.