Sunday, November 11, 2007

We will remember them.

Today is Rembrance Day in Canada and most, if not all, of the Commonwealth. Unlike the US, which honours living veterans and those killed in battle on two days (Veteran's Day and Memorial Day, respectively), Commonwealth countries have kept the tradition of observing the the 11th day of the 11th month as the moment for honouring all in the country's military service, be they killed in service, veterans, or active duty members.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, at cenotaphs throughout the country, the Act of Remembrance is read. It is an excerpt from a Laurence Binyon poem, For the Fallen, and has been adopted as Canada's Official Act of Remembrance.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

RESPONSE: We will remember them

It is really quite moving to be in the midst of a very large crowd of people and to declare softly, in response to the act, a personal promise to remember. Alas, I was not in the midst of such a crowd today; for the first time in several years I didn't go to the local cenotaph for the ceremony, and I feel badly about it. Just too many things going on right now, just too exhausted; we spent all day yesterday running around buying things for an in-car emergency kit (you'd think, being Canadian, we'd have done it years ago; and we did have a little commercial kit, but it needed to be updated and expanded pretty radically for the kind of winter driving I am going to be doing). I spent the morning doing French exercises instead.

But enough about that, the bottom line is that I didn't go to the cenotaph, but I wish I had, and I am sure C. did, she does every year; but I did remember; I watched the ceremonies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on television, Michaelle Jean speaking warmly to the Silver Cross mother as Jean's young daughter clung to her arm. I was struck again at how magnificent The National War Memorial is, and remembered how incredibly overwhelming it is when viewed in person, the staggering energy the sculptor contained in the static forms of those 23 warriors bursting through the center of the arch, representing their emergence from war into peace; the remarkable poignancy of the winged figures, Peace and Liberty, ascendant at the crown of the arch.

That made me think about another Canadian war memorial, this one in France; the Vimy Memorial, which fate willing I intend to visit someday; it, too, is a triumph of design. It is meant from a distance, I have read, to invoke the letter V, for Victory and for Vimy; the battle which Canada entered a colony and from which it emerged a country. Close up, as I have seen it on television, the memorial is a complex and compelling series of figures, all carefully chosen and all representative of some aspect of what the battle meant to our fledgling country.

A much more modest war memorial came to mind, but a personal favourite; the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial, a great bronze caribou erected to the memory of those who died in one of the blackest days in Newfoundland's military history. Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada when her sons signed up for the First World War (certainly, it wasn't when they signed up for the Second World War!), but an independent colony fighting under its own ensign. The details of the battle are at the link to the memorial; I haven't the heart to recount them. What is important for our purposes is to know that this memorial at the battle site in France has a sister memorial, an identical statue, in Bowering Park in St. John's; and it was one of my favourite places to go and sit and read or think when I lived there.

Don't we choose beautiful war memorials, I thought; and isn't it a damned shame we've gotten so good at it.



Anonymous Dann said...

Hi Ronnie,

If I haven't said it before...and I think I have...I'm more than just a tad envious of the relationship between Canadians and their veterans.

A modest correction...although we in the US do have two distinct military/veteran related holidays, those of us that actually conduct the services don't draw as sharp a distinction as your post suggest. Ceremonies on both days recall sacrifices of the past, present, and the future....always skewed just a bit towards the past. Which is as it should be.

I don't believe that you would have found an American ceremony yesterday that differed much from what went on in Canada. Some. But not much.


12:05 p.m.  
Blogger ronnie said...

Thanks for the clarification, Dann. I thought there was a pretty clear philosophical and observational line between the two, with living Veterans being the focus of Veterans Day and only deceased soldiers or veterans being the focus of Memorial Day. I appreciate learning that the two are more generally focused on all service.


7:23 p.m.  

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