Lest we Forget…
By Christian Charette
November 11 marks the day of remembrance, Armistice Day, when Commonwealth countries remember the brave men and women who have died in service to their countries since the end of World War I. The poppy, of course, is the emblem of this day, and while many people recognize the little red symbol often worn on our lapels, many may not be aware of its exact provenance.
In Flander’s Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae (Linda Granfield & Janet Wilson, 2005) is a wonderful book that pays homage to the Canadian doctor-poet who immortalized the poppy in his poem written on the battle field of WWI. Granfield’s clear and direct prose provides both information about the first Great War itself, and a carefully crafted look at some of McCrae’s own experiences as a military doctor. Granfield skillfully weaves this background information between lines of the famous poem, and Wilson’s illustrations provide a striking and colorful palette upon which McCrae’s haunting words come to life.
Similarly, Ted Barris’ Victory at Vimy (2007) provides a rousing account of the battle of Vimy Ridge, on Easter Monday of 1917. Barris summons up the ghosts of soldiers past, giving them new life in his various vignettes, recounting with passion and a dramatic pen the different little skirmishes that made up the battle, granting us an inside look at the hell of the battle itself, and the exultation of victory. But more than a simple military success, Barris argues that it was at this battle that the idea of a Canadian military, one that was its own entity and not simply a part of the greater British army, was born and cemented. More than just an engrossing military tale, Victory at Vimy is an origins story, a retelling of Canada’s rebirth as its own nation.
In a different vein, Shake Hands with the Devil (2003), written by one of Canada’s most famous soldiers, Lt. General Romeo Dallaire, recounts the tragic and shocking events of his days as Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in 1993-1994. It was during this tour that Lt. General Dallaire was a first-hand witness of genocide in Rwanda. Dallaire, now a Canadian Senator and a humanitarian author and speaker, tells a harrowing tale, one where he and his men were powerless to act in the face of some of the most atrocious acts ever committed by human beings. The book is also the story of Dallaire’s journey from self-assured military commander to shattered warrior, and his renaissance as a man of peace and hope.
Finally, Scottish mystery writer Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy (1993) offers a different take on WWII. Through these three short novels, collected together in this one handy omnibus volume, Kerr tells the story of Bernhardt Gunther, a former German soldier and police officer turned private eye. Setting his action in Berlin before, during, and after WWII, Kerr offers noir stories of the highest caliber, with the wise-cracking, seemingly amoral Gunther as our guide. As with many noir stories, it is in the juxtaposition of what we at first see as our hero’s cynical disposition, and the true cold evil of his enemies, that a certain form of jaded but hopeful humanity emerges. The plots are satisfyingly complex and engrossing, the characters colorful and engaging, and Kerr’s intelligence and scrupulous attention to historical detail are deeply infused in his superlative ability to evoke time and place. With these books, Kerr reminds us that even among our enemies there is goodness and humanity to be found, and that while we celebrate our victories, we should always remember that good people live on the other side of the no man’s land also. Remembrance is not a one-way street.