Reflection on Remembrance
“When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed… for nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom….” Jesus, in Mark 13:1-8.
“I remember going in the first night we ever went to the trenches, and one fellow…said to another chap, “Good God, the MO’s come up with us – that makes you feel better, chum, doesn’t it?” Then I realised I was doing some good by being there. Medically, I felt I was doing no good at all.” Captain M. Esler, Royal Army Medical Corps, 1915.
Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel seem rather fatalistic, foretelling terrible things to come at what may seem like the end of the world but which may actually refer to the fall of Jerusalem, as would happen when the Temple was destroyed in AD 70. So many years later, Captain Esler found himself in the midst of terrible destruction but realised that some good happened simply by being there although his medical skills could be of little use in the trenches. 106 years on, warfare is ongoing and many battles are still being waged, with casualties and devastation arising as a result. Being there and part of it may bring about some good, but may also mean that our usual skills and gifts can’t be utilised, as Esler found in World War One.
During the same war, another MO, the Canadian Gunner John McCrae, experienced warfare as a nightmare. Fighting in the second battle of Ypres, he wrote in a letter to his mother that, “For seventeen days and 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…. 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.” When his friend Alexis Helmer was killed during the battle on May 2nd 1915, McCrae took his funeral service himself and noticed how quickly poppies had regrown around nearby graves. As a result, he penned the poem In Flanders Fields whilst sitting in the back of an ambulance near the dressing station, writing words he sensed from the dead and their urge to the living to press on.
McCrae himself was dead by the end of January 1918, succumbing to pneumonia and meningitis whilst still in command of No. 3 Canadian General Hospital in France, and his final poem The anxious dead refers to his own situation: “These fought their fight in time of bitter fear, And died not knowing how the day had gone.” In this poem, the living answer the dead: “Tell them, O dead, that we have heard their call, that we have sworn, and will not turn aside, That we will onward till we win or fall, That we will keep the faith for which they died.” McCrae writes that, eventually, the dead, “shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep…. And in content may turn them to their sleep.”
The hope is that peace will eventually prevail but, meanwhile, the reality of the turmoil of which Jesus spoke over two thousand years ago continues and the challenge in McCrae’s previous poem is to us as well as his generation as we continue the struggles facing us in our day:
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields, the poppies growBetween 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 agoWe 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.
With my prayers; pob bendith,