Reviewed by Nick Milne
Ed. Amanda Betts
In Flanders Fields, 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance. Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2015.
With In Flanders Fields, 100 Years: Writings on War, Loss and Remembrance, Amanda Betts has assembled an intriguing collection of pieces meditating on subjects as varied as combat medicine, poetry, Canadian electoral history, the burdens of military command, propaganda, the pain of personal loss, the landscape of the Belgian countryside, the poppy, and much more. The war was a rich and multi-faceted experience as well as a political event, a military conflict, a tragedy, and so on, but the essays in this volume generally pay due and even overdue tribute to this variety. The volume takes its name and its general focus from Lt. Colonel John McCrae’s celebrated poem of the same name, and is accompanied throughout by gorgeous artwork and photographs taken from archives at McCrae House, the Imperial War Museum and Library and Archives Canada (among others), with the consequence that In Flanders Fields... is one of the few essay collections I’ve encountered that is as beautiful as it is enriching. This attention to the aesthetic side of things is more than justified given the subject matter; McCrae’s poem is lyrically rich in its colour and imagery, from the redness of the poppies to the whiteness of the crosses, and situating it among these images serves as a stark reminder of both its influence and its endurance. This is no sepia-tinged poem to be dusted off, but rather a poem that lives.
This is no small thing after a hundred years. As the centenaries of the First World War continue to roll on, debate has also continued about how the war, its events, and its legacies should be publicly remembered in Canada. With notable public events still to come in 2017, in recognition of the Canadian Corps’ assault on Vimy Ridge during the Arras offensive, the war has remained much in the public eye. Still, a national spirit of memory and reflection is a difficult thing to maintain indefinitely; the war’s more than fifty months of global activity have resulted a century later in a burdening of memory and acknowledgement that has seldom been seen before, and without even the fantasy that it might all be over by Christmas. There is a sense that here, as in the United Kingdom, a certain "commemoration fatigue" might already have begun to set in, and some commemorative moments have begun to pass with less fanfare than one might have expected.
An aspect of the war that has not been neglected, however, is one that is widely revered as Canada's most important literary contribution to it. McCrae's "In Flanders Fields," composed at the front during the Second Battle of Ypres in May of 1915, was first published in Punch magazine in December of that year. McCrae famously wrote the poem after presiding over the funeral of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, who had been killed in action; McCrae himself would die of illness contracted in the field in January of 1918. Fittingly or not, it remains the only poem for which McCrae is now known: “In Flanders Fields” proved an immediate international success, and its reputation has grown to staggering dimensions over the course of the intervening century. Nancy Holmes has astutely described the ominous rondeau as "Canada's official poem," and there is considerable truth to this; there is scarcely a Canadian citizen who does not know at least some of it by heart, and it stands with equal gravity alongside the words of Rudyard Kipling and Laurence Binyon that join McCrae's work in forming the poetical matrix of each year's Remembrance Day ceremonies throughout Canada. Odd as it may sound, a poetics of Remembrance Day is necessary; the ceremonies are built around such reverent metrical expressions, with poems and hymns being intoned side by side and without relevant (or even needful) distinction being made between them. The war's memory has become as much literary as historical, with each figuration of it offering a different approach to uncovering the "truth about the war."
Just what that "truth about the war" is, however, remains thoroughly contentious, and the role of McCrae's poem in illuminating it equally so. Is it a paean to those few brief moments of peace and beauty—like "the larks, [that] still bravely singing, fly"—that can punctuate the landscape of war? A lament for the dead, who "Short days ago,” “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved?" Or is it an urgent exhortation—as some critics suggest (and, perhaps, fear)—that the war should not simply end, but be waged until the "quarrel with the foe" is avenged and the dead can finally sleep? It is all of these and more, and this spirit of multiple perspectives and concerns animates Betts’ volume.
In Flanders Fields… bills itself as a collection of “writing on war, loss and remembrance,” and it more than lives up to the promise. Betts has brought together a host of vibrant and influential Canadian voices to give their perspectives on what the poem, the war, and the legacy of both have meant to them. The talents arrayed for the volume are considerable, and they represent a pleasing variety of fields; Tim Cook and Jonathan Vance contribute essays about the Second Battle of Ypres and attempts to co-opt McCrae’s poem, respectively, while Frances Itani and Joseph Boyden reflect on their visits to the battlefields and cemeteries of Belgium. Some of the work included is not strictly original to the volume, though, but remains welcome all the same: Margaret Atwood meditates on the meaning of the poppy, in a selection taken from Good Bones and Simple Murders (1983), and George Elliott Clarke pays a moving poetical tribute to the Nova Scotian Reverend Captain William Andrew White, the first black officer and chaplain to serve in the British army. To these are added additional pieces by Patrick Lane, Mary Janigan, Ken Dryden, Kevin Patterson, Wade Davis, and Hannah Moscovitch, all of them striking at least one note of poignancy, originality, or both. Lane’s account of Helmer’s terrible wounds and McCrae’s attempt to build something new upon them is particularly powerful (64-66), as is Boyden’s description of the impact of certain battlefield photographs he encountered in Belgium (221-22). “I finally see,” he writes; “it’s through the eyes of the people that haunt these photos, these ghosts who materialize in a world I’d only until now flatly envisioned” (222). This new sense of depth is everywhere present in the volume’s material.
The most potent and arresting piece of all, perhaps, is the introductory essay by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. Dallaire considers what the poem has meant to him in his dual roles as a humanitarian and a soldier, placing particular emphasis upon what it means to read such words as a commander who has been required to send those under his command into danger and death. The significance of the piece, apart from its being written by one of the foremost living Canadian veterans, can be found in the unapologetic fashion in which he describes and lays claim to the soldiering life. "It is easy for those not in uniform to misunderstand," he writes, "the compulsion that drives soldiers to fight for what is right and good and not just hope and pray for it" (7). It is in the heart, the blood, the mind, and the bones; it has provided a life for millions of men and women away from their homes, and given unequalled opportunities even as it has also posed unequalled risks. It is a life like no other, and Dallaire’s insistence upon this is both provocative and necessary when it comes to the poem at the heart of this volume. Paul Fussell, in his still-influential The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), famously describes “In Flanders Fields” as a “vicious” and “stupid” work that stands in the ranks of propaganda before attaining any merits as a poem. An argument over that is best left for another time and place, but it remains the case that we may find in Dallaire’s compassionate and cautious response something far better suited to the poem’s complexities and origins than the brute dismissal of it as “propaganda.”
If there is a criticism to be offered of In Flanders Fields…, it is perhaps that much of its contents are so thoroughly conventional. As beautiful as the book is, aesthetically, and as pleasing as its variety is in terms of the voices included and the actual subjects being examined, there is nothing in here that can really be called ground-breaking, novel, or even particularly modern. It is strange that this should be so, given how aggressively the centenary moments of the last two years have been hailed as opportunities for reflection and reappraisal--surely at least some of the authors included might have ended up with a view of the war that differed significantly from the same lamentations about mud, blood and futility that have been the only acceptable currency of the war’s commemoration for decades. Tim Cook’s piece comes the closest to offering something really new and ground-breaking, as much of the historiographical shift in First World War studies has been happening in military circles. None of this, furthermore, is to say that the more conventional pieces are somehow bad. Indeed, that is very far from the case; even the weakest among them is at least well written and enthusiastically felt.
In any case, the synthesis of approaches that this volume provides remains, perhaps, its most important feature. With so much debate about the meaning of the war being conducted across so many fields, it is more important than ever that those in different disciplines and with different perspectives and skill-sets be willing to come together and contribute to one another’s understanding--to approach the matter in a spirit of peace rather than of hostility. Cultural historians may end up reading works of military theory; military historians may end up being introduced to the diaries of Toronto or Montreal’s working women and children; literary scholars might end up consulting rafts of charts and tables; poets might find something beautiful in the prosaic quality of an official dispatch or a regimental journal.
If McCrae’s poem does nothing else, it must still remind us that we continue to have different stories about the war that we both want and need to tell each other. With the war and the issues that motivated it either resolved or dissolved, perhaps it is these tales and these memories that now constitute the torch that we must catch and pass on. In Flanders Fields… is a gallant attempt at just that.
Dr. Nick Milne is a part-time professor in the University of Ottawa's Department of English. His research focuses on the intersections of literary scholarship and historiography in the study of the First World War. His work has appeared in Canadian Literature, Tin House and Slate. He is a regular contributor to the University of Oxford’s Centenary blog, (WW1C), and he has been featured in documentary programs on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radios 3 and 4.
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