Some of the more observant among us will notice that many people’s lapels will carry a crimson poppy over the coming days. Others will note that the public holiday we are given this weekend falls on the numerically synchronized 11th day of the 11th month of the year.
But many of us in the Middle School may not know why.
In short, both the red flower and the public holiday commemorate the signing of the peace agreement that brought to an end what was once known as the Great War. This peace was signed on the 11th of November, 1918.
This war, the Great War, gripped the whole of Europe and much of the world. There was really nothing at all ‘great’ about the war, except how ‘greatly devastated’ it left much of the Western world. This war has also become known as the First World War, after it became tragically necessary to distinguish this conflict from the other ‘great’ conflict of the 20th Century, the Second World War.
If we go back some 98 years, the idea that the entire world would be embroiled in a war was stunningly horrifying. The Great War, was the First World War – not just because it came before the Second World War, but because it was the first war to be fought on a global scale, with global consequences.
How the world came to this can be traced to a lack of many things, but one of these was the lack of balance – and, as it happens, balance is the Learner Profile theme that we, at St. John’s, will reflect on this month.
The Great War, the First World War, was the product of an age of imbalance. Over the final years of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, European powers became increasingly competitive and greedy – desiring more colonies, more wealth, bigger armies, stronger navies and more weapons. It is clear to see that this rush to arm and out-do other nations stemmed from a lack of balance on the part of Europe’s leaders.
The imbalance and carelessness of Europe’s leaders sadly did not end here, and over the years of the war, the lives of millions of men, women and children would be wasted as Europe’s leaders used strategies that showed careless disregard for peoples’ lives. Over 17 million soldiers and ordinary citizens died in the First World War and 20 million were wounded.
One poet, and father, who lost his son, summed up a soldier’s perspective on the war in this short poem:
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
Kipling captures the soldiers anger at how their leaders’ lied to them when they promised that war would be a heroic and grand adventure – showing a cruel lack of balance, compassion and a failure to appreciate the value of human life.
Another reason to pause and reflect on this moment in time is because it so closely relates to us, and where we are at this very moment. Belgium.
Much of the bloodshed of the First World War occurred in fields not very far from us. Mons, Liege, Passchendaele, Ypres and many more Belgian cities were war zones. The poppy, that many of us wear this month, is explicitly a reference to Belgium, where poppies grew in their millions on the fertile blood-soaked fields during and after the war.
These flowers, and the hopeful image they represent of life and beauty surviving the horrors of war, are celebrated in another poem by John McCrae:
In this poem, we can hear the poet speaking directly to us, asking us to “take up” the fight. Importantly, it is not a fight of army against army that McCrae speaks about, but rather the struggle of reason over chaos; balance and compassion over inhuman slaughter. “The torch” that McCrae challenges us to hold high is the torch of freedom, democracy and peace.
It is timely then, as the strongest economy in the world emerges from a long and uncommonly hostile presidential election campaign, and as extremism takes an ever tighter grip of the world, that we reflect on the Great war, the First World War, and the dangers of imbalance. Let us also reflect on what those soldiers in Flanders fields fought for and saved for us – freedom, peace and democracy – for this, let us both be balanced and grateful.
By James Prowse, MS Dean of Students