Sacrifice is a word that has all sorts of connotations. It implies that we will have to selflessly give up something we value for the greater good, be it time, money, space, resources, comfort, cherished dreams etc
November 11th is Remembrance Day when we remember how so many people sacrificed their lives and if not that, their health and time with their loved ones for the sake of the greater good. I cannot imagine what it was like to live in those times. My parents told me of how they had to be evacuated to Dorset and I heard tales of ancestors serving during the war, of Uncle Joe who lost his life in the parachute regiment, but still, it seems so far removed from today’s world.
We watch analyses and footage on TV, YouTube, read books, look at images which we can leave behind. People who have been through wars still carry those images, are affected by them long, way so long after the event.
The Corn Poppy is the memorial flower of veterans. Silk and paper poppies are handed out for donations to veteran causes and worn on Memorial Day.
There is a lot of history and myths attached to Poppies. It first dawned on humans that the seed pod carried latent properties in Neolithic times. They are found in Egyptian tombs from 3000 years ago. There is a prescription for how to use poppy essence to give to children to halt their tears. The Ancient Greeks regarded poppies as a sign of fertility and bringers of health and strength so they gave it to their athletes in honey and wine.
If you are familiar with the legend of Demeter , you will know how distraught she was when her daughter Persephone was taken underground by the ruler of the Underworld realm, Hades. It is said that Demeter created the poppy so that she could get some respite. some sleep when Persephone was absent.The Ancient Greeks twin brothers, Hypnos (sleep) and Thanatos (Death) were imagined as either carrying poppies or being crowned with them. The Greeks knew that opium could give you a deep releasing sleep or that it could lead you into death.
The Romans brought it to England. Their mythology made it a connection to Somnus, the god of sleep. As a representaion of the belief that we rest to wait for the Last Day, Christians carved in on the pews in some medieval churches.
We all know that opium trading has created turf wars and fortunes for some. By the onset of the nineteenth century the tincture of opium called laudanum was as casually bought and used as aspirin is today.
Oriental poppies contain opium.The corn poppy, however, does not. . This is the one that is used as an emblem to commemorate those who died in wars. It was noticed during the Napoleonic Wars as a strange flower that would bloom among the freshly dug graves of fallen soldiers.
The practice of wearing these poppies as a mark of remembrance and respect began with a poem.The message of the emblem is that we should not forget, but should be brought to our senses.
Canadian John McCrae was a poet, surgeon and medical officer on the front lines. He wrote the poem “In Flanders Field” with a pencil stub on 3rd May 1915, whilst sitting in a ambulance the day after personally conducting a burial service for a friend, Alexis Helmer. He allegedly showed it to a couple of soldiers then threw it away but it was rescued by those who read the first draft. It was revised and then rejected by The Spectator but was thankfully published on 8th December 1915 in Punch Magazine.
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.
We looked at War Poets when I was at school as ot was part of the English Literature curriculum. This is the one by Wilfred Owen that I have never forgotten
- What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells
And bugles calling from them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
I decided to have a look at recent war poets and here are two that I chose to include here. All yo need to do is to google war poets to read more.
Star Shells over Stonehenge
Stonehenge, right next to an artillery range,
Had its megaliths, lit by star shells. These
Were like the severed halves of giant stone men-
Stomachs vanished- holding hands.
The sky and we- just Army cadets- were worlds intersecting
Like lines in Futurist paintings. The guns,
Were giant curtains and doors opening
And slamming in the sky.
My father saw this in 1940, his father in 1917.
Perhaps time is like this:
Past, present and future don’t ease apart like trains.
They collide with one another. They
Are beaten together like heads. Nations
Are engines that thrust all these like pool balls into Ds.
Perhaps that is greatness: giant stone men,
Raising sparks, banging ages together like star shells;
Somewhere a Great Caesar dreams of an existence-
Unbuilt – in the centre of the Stonehenge ring
Lit by lights of wars past, present and those to come.
The next poem that I have chosen is by Ed Poynter. He served as an Infantry Officer in the British Army. He was in The Rifles (and before that The Royal Green Jackets) and served in Iraq in 2007. He left the army in April 2010 and returned to working as an English teacher in Sussex. He says that this poem has a two-fold purpose. He is lamenting the loss of two men who were killed in the upper Gereshk Valley In Heland Province, Afghanistan in June 2009, whilst simultaneously recording a moment of insight into the nature of war and a condemnation of it. The first line also brings us back to a poppy reference:
The rich opium-laced breeze soothed us in its warm embrace
and lulled the senses to relax.
It seduced the wary eye to settle on the peaceful façade of this bitterly contested place
and prompted heartfelt admiration of the lush greenery, the canal
(whose cheerful, gurgling chuckle had carried
the blasted remnants of another friend downstream only nine days before),
and the ancient hand-crafted compound walls;
visible now only as dark silhouettes,
beneath a deep, twinkling and strangely familiar heaven.
This is where we reconciled –
this sandbagged nest we shared;
wrapped crudely in a dusty net
and raised above a pre-historic land
littered with reminders of chaotic, violent instants.
Like short snarled sentences punctuating the long anxious chapters of waiting,
brass cases – expelled in acrid, heated rage –
lie cool now beside the crushed remains of lazily smoked cigarettes.
A moment is never truly important
until it is beyond the reach of our too-late-learning grasp.
That conversation, uttered in low concealed tones,
focussed on the journeys of life and love
and the accepting realisation
that naïve ideals of adventurism, glory and altruistic hope
can lead a man to risk all in the pursuit of something that never really existed,
and the dawning understanding
that the risk we take is not only real,
but also not only ours to own.
Families, friends and lovers will feel the heat
and the body shattering force of the blast,
that rips limbs from torsos
and reduces smiling men to bloody matter,
more keenly than he who takes unknowingly that final step
where earth and fire and man must meet in mutual devastation.
He that dies knows not the pain of loss;
the wounds inflicted lie deeper than the shards of plastic, metal and stone
that tear living tissue from bone,
that puncture organs with dumb, jagged imprecision.
No medic can stem the bleeding from these hearts.
No stretcher, lifted by desperate bloody hands,
can bear them swiftly to a better place.
Time may disguise their visible wounds
but the real damage remains raw beneath the fading scars.
Pomp, ceremony and bold rhetoric,
like the smiling face of Janus,
allow man and nation to beautify this savage calling;
to believe that this destruction of bodies and souls can be justified,
nay… required and even lauded!
Medals, congratulations, proud condolences and bachic parties,
with revellers in braid and lace,
belie the sin that man commits against his naked self.
And even the priest, who claims to understand God’s message,
proclaims, with no hint of irony,
that “War, like childbirth, may be bloody and painful,
but the ends can justify the means.”
In memory and gratitude to my ancestors who fought and served during wars, throughout time, from the beginning of my family tree, wherever that root may be. Due to thee, I am free x