Friday, November 11, 2005

From Hong Kong to Flanders Fields

Normally our posts are about Hong Kong or the European involvement in Asia. But today on the 87th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I (on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month), I feel compelled as a student of history to lend our support to Remembrance Day. This Great War, this disastrous apocalypse brought almost all the leading powers of the day to their knees, and the senseless, mechanized killing in the trenches was rendered even more meaningless by the even greater disaster of World War II.

But senseless though the deaths may have been at the time, by those two cataclysms the world came to learn some bitterly-bought lessons about war and world politics. And we must give our silent thanks for the many legions of the dead that lie still, far before their natural time. Because it was in the crucible of their sacrifice that our relatively peaceful world was born. Remembering them, the life and passion that was stolen from them, and their sacrifice serves a dual purpose - to reaffirm our own humanity by decrying their loss, and to ensure we do not let our world or that of our children to devolve as quickly as it did in August 1914.

Why do people wear the red flower known as a poppy? It should be well known to keen students of Hong Kong history, given that the city was founded due to the sweet opiate emanations of that flower. But the poppy was also a symbol of death - because it grows well, and often, in disturbed earth - just like the fields of Flanders during World War I. It became a symbol of the war because of a moving, haunting poem called In Flanders Fields, by a Canadian surgeon who witnessed the tragedy and horror:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
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 the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

By John McCrae 1915
That poem honours the dead beautifully. But for the second theme, of preventing such tragedy from happening again, let us turn to a second poem, The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats, 1920

Poppy Update: read an excellent article in the Telegraph about how the symbol of the poppy was adopted.


Anonymous said...

Prompted me to go to the Poppy Appeal site and donate...

Dave and Stefan said...

Thank you both for your kind words. I hope the message of the poppy remains strong and unforgotten in our new age.

waisikgwai said...

Your comments about World War I remind me of a stone monument that is one of the few historical structures still left in 中 環 Central. It's called the Cenotaph in English or 歐 戰 記 念 碑 in Chinese. From what I understand, the Cenotaph in HK is identical to one erected elsewhere (probably in England). Every time I see the Cenotaph, I think of HK's interesting history and the old photos and postcards showing 皇 后 像 廣 場 Statue Square and 香 港 會 the HK Club.