Our Dedicated Team
St. Pat's Remembers: The Importance of Remembrance Day
In Canada, the symbolism of a torch - a flame - being passed from hand to hand comes to us not from the Olympics, but from the poem In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 by Lt. Col John McCrae, a Canadian doctor stationed in Flanders Fields, Belgium, one of the bloodiest battlefields of WWI.
After witnessing the death of a close friend, McCrae sat down on the back of an ambulance and penned what has become the most famous war poem of all time, in which he writes about the war from the perspective of the men fighting and dying in it. In the final stanza, McCrae urges readers to, “take up our quarrel with the foe:/ to you from failing hands we throw/ the torch; be yours to hold it high.” In WWI, this was a cry to continue to battle, win the war, and conquer oppression. In WWII the same words were used as a propaganda tool to spur patriotism and increase enlistment to fight yet another war against tyranny.
The idea of passing the torch to the next generation has remained with us, though post-WWII the meaning behind the passing of the torch changed, and today passing the torch is no longer a call to arms. Instead, the torch has become a symbol of remembrance, and the passing of the torch means that the next generation has accepted the challenge of remembering those who have served and died, both at home and abroad, so that we can have the rights and freedoms we so often take for granted.
2010 has become a significant year for remembrance. In February, John Babcock, Canada’s last surviving WWI veteran, died, and in May, the international liberation parade in Wageningen, Netherlands, marked the 65th anniversary of the end of Nazi occupation in that country, and the end of WWII on the European front.
This parade was not your typical parade. The participants wore dark military dress uniforms and medals won for bravery and service to the country, not colourful costumes. The participants were not young; many were in wheelchairs or walked with the assistance of a cane or a walker. They did not throw candy from the floats as they went past; instead, they waved flags and blew kisses from restored WWII vehicles. Veterans from all of the liberating nations – Canada, Britain, Poland, and the US – marched, rode, or were wheeled past, and the raucous reception they received from the crowd of over 130,000 people was nothing less than they deserved.
Thirty-eight of our students, along with five chaperones, had the opportunity to witness this parade, and for most of us who were there it became one of the highlights of our trip. For many, it was life-altering. When we got back on the bus after the parade most of us were talking about the impact of “that one veteran” on us. There were thousands of veterans in that parade, but without saying anything else, each of us knew which one was being referred to. “That one veteran” was riding in the back of a restored WWII transport truck. He was alone, accompanied only by a woman in her 30s, presumably a granddaughter. As he came around the corner he could not help but notice those of us standing closest to the corner: we were decked out in Canadian paraphernalia, and I’m pretty sure we were cheering louder than the rest of the crowd combined. As he passed the first few of us he smiled and waved, but as he continued down the street and saw how far our group stretched – pretty well the length of a city block - his smile faded. His chin began to wobble, and he began to cry. From his seat, he saluted us. It was at that moment that I realized why we were there, what we were witnessing, and the responsibility that had been given to each of us.
Most of our WWII veterans are now in their 80s and 90s, and this parade was the last international parade being planned in Wageningen as in five years’ time, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation, most of the veterans who will still be alive will be unable to travel that distance to participate. As this generation passes on and the human connection to this era is lost, it is imperative that we all continue to take time throughout the year, but on Remembrance Day especially, to reflect and remember, and understand why we are doing so.
The paradox in our country is that our veterans are getting both older and younger. We also need to remember and honour those currently in service to our country, be it in the military, fire fighting or policing, because their service and sacrifice here and abroad is every bit as important as that of the soldiers' in the past. These men and women protect us, our homes, our nation, and our rights. They do it willingly and selflessly, asking nothing in return. We cannot forget any of them, what they represent, or what they do for us and our nation. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and the only way we can repay that debt is by taking the time to remember and by passing on the reasons why we remember to future generations.
The veterans in that parade passed the torch of remembrance to us, as it was passed to them by the generations before. This year, we at St. Pat’s accept the passing of the torch, and the responsibility that comes with it. Lest we forget.