On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

Posted by Helen Friday, November 10, 2006

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

The First World War produced more poems in the English language than possibly any other. This particular one was written by a Canadian, Dr John McCrae in early May 1915, during the second battle of Ypres. It was first published, anonymously, in Punch in December of that year, though the authorship was soon established.

Dr McCrae stayed in France until January 1918. He died of pneumonia, compounded by exhaustion and depression on January 28. He was 45 years old.

Some years ago one of Tory Historian’s clever-dick journalist friends put forward the suggestion that Remembrance Day should be moved from November 11 (and, presumably, Remembrance Sunday from the nearest Sunday) because that was too closely linked in people’s minds with the First World War. This was before Gordon Brown in a fit of leadership fever suggested having a British Veterans’ Day.

To all of these suggestions Tory Historian can reply with the well-known political adage: “if it ain’t broke, don’t mend it”. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is easy to remember and the inherited memory of that war is hard to erase (or change despite its severe inaccuracies) precisely because of the poems.

While the image created by the poets was potent the analysis that has grown out of it is not entirely accurate. The image serves us well for remembrance of the dead of that and many other wars.

They shall not grow 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.


  1. I am a student in Edinburgh and attended the ceremony in the city centre today. On a day when four more soliders lost their lives for Great Britain rememberance day could hardly be any more important.

    I have just stumbled across this blog from the Conservatives main website, your now hooked up to my rss feeds. Looks like a cool site.

  2. Simon Harley Says:
  3. How right you are that "the analysis that has grown out of it is not entirely accurate". If only people actually read about the history of the Great War and not Sassoon's infamous letter or Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" (a magnificently jarring poem).

    If people actually learned the reasons for the great sacrifice then they might stop being cynical about the sacrifice, full stop.

    The Remembrance Sunday service in Leeds City was certainly moving and the televised one in London was exceptional as always.

  4. Anonymous Says:
  5. As a regular pilgrim to the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme, I am glad to see that a more balanced view of the Great War is being portrayed. I am fed up with ignorant persons describing the missing of Thiepval and the Ypres Salient as sheep sent needlessly to slaughter, rather than soldiers fighting against oppression and tyranny at a time when the technology of military defence was more sophisticated than the technology of military attack.

  6. Helen Says:
  7. Alas, Robert, the alliance with Russia was always a bit of a problem for people who tried to portray WWI as a crusade for freedom and democracy. Not to mention Serbia. And gallant little Belgium was not highly thought of by people who had been looking the country's record in Congo, such as E. D. Morel.

    But that is not the issue when we discuss the actual conduct of the war.

  8. Anonymous Says:
  9. I think the line should read "They shall grow not old" as opposed to "They shall not grow old"

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