I’m sure we all saw things on social media over the past weekend about the 100th anniversary of the death of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, the Canadian soldier-physician-poet who wrote “In Flanders Fields.” Canada, like Australia, Britain, India and New Zealand, has been seized with World War I centennials and “In Flanders Fields” has been read aloud at many of them.
So, of course, Canada had a big delegation at his grave in Wimereux, on the French coast, almost equidistant between Dunkirk and Dieppe, to mark the centennial of his death, led by Saemus O’Regan, no doubt … Oh, wait … according to a report by Tom Spears in the Ottawa Citizen, “Veterans Affairs Canada says it laid a wreath and poppies at the new Vimy Education Centre, the scene of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.“
Why did they not go to John McCrae’s actual grave in Wimereux? Well, Veterans Affairs says (same article) that “it receives many requests to attend special events in France but has no record of being officially notified by the town of Wimereux.” So, some bureaucrat didn’t get an engraved invitation and, therefore, Canada didn’t bother? Did anyone in Veterans Affairs many offices in Charlottetown or Ottawa know where John McCrae was buried? Did no-one think it might be a good idea to reach out to someone ~ the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, perhaps, who did organize a service at Wimereux? the town of Wimereux, which provided a brass band and did lay a wreath? to anyone? Or do cabinet ministers and senior officials only go when celebrities like Princes William and Harry are on tap and the when the weather is fine?
Some comments from someone who did attend:
- ““There was not one Canadian person there at all” … “I was gobsmacked. I was really quite saddened and upset for John, bearing in mind that his poem is probably taught through every single school in Canada. You have Canadian dollar notes that have been (printed) with the poem printed on them”;”
- ““I just thought all it needed was one official representative, that’s all, just to lay a wreath. Nothing as grand and as over-the-top as what happened at Vimy Ridge. I mean, I just couldn’t believe, not one Canadian person”;”
- ““They can all turn around and say they may not have known of the service in Wimereux, but the bottom line is I know that John died on the 28th of January. I know that (Sunday) was his 100-year centenary of death. We made the effort to contact Wimereux”;” and
- ““I’m sorry, but they all stand underneath the Menin Gate (Belgium’s great war memorial). They all go to the Vimy Ridge service. They all wear poppies, and in my mind I’m sorry, but they are not worthy of wearing those poppies. … Absolutely disgusting.”“
Some people think that we (not just Canada) went overboard on centennials of nearly forgotten battles in a nearly forgotten war … and that’s a fair position to take. Others think we need to make even greater efforts to remember because the last veterans of that war have died. John McCare was an iconic Canadian, as the British lady quoted above noted, the poem and the poppy have even been featured on our money, so I would have expected something to have been done at his gravesite on the 100th anniversary of his death … but no; it looks like a missed opportunity.