Red Poppies

November 11, 2003



Today is Armistice Day.

I did not discuss it in class. I perhaps should have, or at least worn a red poppy, but I was busy thinking about what to teach, how to keep up with my syllabus, and whether the baby was sick or not.

The day has been widened to be a day on which we respect all veterans, and people around the blogging world and around the real world have been respecting veterans today. We should respect all veterans; we should especially respect them today. We respect them for what they all did in their times of service, and we respect them with the rituals and memories that we learned after the Great War.

I am going to share with you a story that I learned from my mother and that I share with my students.

Grandpa Louie was short, just over 5'2". He was also a medical doctor. When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, Grandpa Louie went down to the recruiting office to sign up that same day. He was a doctor, and he knew that the army would need doctors.

They turned him down - he was too short. You had to be a certain height to join the army: I want to say 5'3" but I am not sure. In any case, he was off by just enough. He asked the recruiting office how he might appeal, and they told him that there were no procedures for appealing a height decision.

So, Grandpa Louie got on the overnight train from Jacksonville, Florida to Washington, DC. He then went to the War Department and asked to speak to the Secretary of War. He was told that the Secretary was busy, and that he would have to wait. "Fine," he said, "I'll wait." And so he did. He sat down on a chair in the outer office and waited. Near closing time, the receptionist asked him what he wanted to see the Secretary about. Grandpa Louie explained that he was a medical doctor, that the army needed doctors, and that he was being kept out because he was too short. The word went up the chain, and a senior official (I want to say the Undersecretary for Recruitment, but it could have been anyone) came down and signed a special exemption so that Grandpa Louie could join the Army.

Doctors were officers, so they made Grandpa Louie an officer. Most of the time, he just did the same sort of doctor things that he had been doing in private practice. Officers also had to take part in some of the ceremonies and rituals of Army service, including parades. And, as part of parades, officers rode horses.

Army horses are, well, very very large. Ordinary sized people often use a mounting step to climb up onto them. Grandpa Louie needed extra help over and above that in order to get up onto his horse. But he used a doubled mounting box, or had his orderly hand him up, and he participated in parades and performed his army duty.

That was the funny story, now we get to the sad story.

Grandpa Louie went overseas soon after he joined the army; doctors did not need a lot of training. He worked in the field hospitals in tents behind the lines in 1918. The worst thing he saw, however, came on the voyage home.

He sailed home on a ship full of young recruits. The winter of 1918-19 was the winter of the Spanish influenza. The troop ship they were riding across the Atlantic was one of the ships where the influenza went pandemic. The ship was full of brave, active, healthy and energetic young men. They were the flower of their generation. They got sick with the flu; many of them died. Grandpa Louie did what he could, but in the era before antibiotics there was not a lot he could do but try to keep fluids in them, keep them comfortable, and sign the death certificate when they died. All through that voyage, flag-draped corpses went over the side. Grandpa always cried when he told this part of the story. I am crying as I type it up now. I often break down when I tell the story of the Great War in class.

Despite the terrible losses among a few military units, either on the battle front or from the flu, the United States came off fairly easily from the Great War. Elsewhere, the war really did kill and maim a generation of young men. England raised its military units regionally, and many towns and communities saw every family lose a son over the course of a single battle. The Morris Dancing tradition in England only continued because women took up the male ritual. In France, which suffered the worst per-capita casualties, about one man in five was killed or wounded during the war. One in five! Germany had more total military losses, Russia more civilian losses, the war was a charnel house for everyone in Europe. The flu epidemic that followed the war was even deadlier.

The war killed a generation of young men. It killed the hope of science; it killed the idea of progress; it marks the change from the optimistic nineteenth century to the pessimistic twentieth century. The history of the last eighty-odd years has been the history of the Great War. We are still, indirectly, living with the consequences of that war.

Armistice Day is our collective memory of the Great War. It is why we wear red poppies on our lapels. We remember, because we must remember.

Dancing At Whitsun

* (Trad / Austin John Marshall)

It's fifty long springtimes since she was a bride
But still you may see her at each Whitsuntide
In a dress of white linen and ribbons of green
As green as her memories of loving

The feet that were nimble tread carefully now
As gentle a measure as age do allow
Through groves of white blossom by fields of young corn
Where once she was pledged to her true love

The fields they stand empty, the hedges grow free
No young men to tend them or pastures go see
They have gone where the forests of oak trees before
Have gone to be wasted in battle

Down from the green farmlands and from their loved ones
Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons
There's a fine roll of honour where the maypole once stood
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun

There's a straight row of houses in these latter days
Are covering the downs where the sheep used to graze
There's a field of red poppies, a wreath from the Queen
But the ladies remember at Whitsun

And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun

Posted by Red Ted at November 11, 2003 08:00 AM | TrackBack