Thursday, November 11, 2010


When we liven in England, everyone in the office wore one of these in November.  Everyone but me.  As the resident Yank, nobody expected me to know what was going on.

The sporting of plastic poppies on the lapel seems at first - to an uncivilized barbarian from the colonies - to be a breach of style (the British to this day are more formal than we).

Looking at it this way is looking at the surface, and missing the depths.  Everyone knows Col. McCrae's poem In Flanders Field:
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 the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
I prefer an older poem, one that dates back to Roman days and which was very popular in the years after the Civil War.  I reproduce my Veteran's Day post from two years ago, because it still says what I feel.


While in some ways I feel like I helped in the Cold War (my days at 3 Letter Intelligency Agency), in no way did I "serve":
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind
This is the opening to Wilfred Owen's World War I poem, Dulce et decorum est. The complete line is Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.

While this poem has become a centerpiece of the anti-war movement, the title is very, very old. Originally, it seems that it was first written by the Roman poet Horace (Odes, iii 2.13), but it's almost certain that it was a popular expression then, and always in reference to veterans. Certainly the expression was in common usage in the 19th century.

The grave of Thomas A. Henderson in Pine Hill Cemetery in Dover, NH. The inscription reads:
Thomas A. Henderson
Lieut. Col.
of the 7th Regt.
N.H. Vol.
Son of Samuel H. & Delia
Born Dec. 1, 1833
Graduated at Bowdoin
College 1855 and at the
Harvard Law School 1861
Was admitted to the Suffolk
Bar Boston, the same year.
Died of a wound received
in action near James
River, Va. Aug. 16, 1864
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori..
To serve, and possibly to die in that service is a distinction that separates men like me from veterans. Thank you all, especially Dad, Uncle Dick (Semper fi, and rest in peace), and nephew Dan (Semper fi, and we're glad that you're back).

And on this Veteran's Day, if you're lucky enough to buy a drink for a Veteran, here's a toast: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, sed dulcius pro patria vivere, et dulcissimum pro patria bibere. Ergo, bibamus pro salute patriae.

"It is sweet to die for the homeland, but it is sweeter to live for the homeland, and the sweetest to drink for it. Therefore, let us drink to the health of the homeland."



aughtSix said...

Another example of the 19th c. common usage: my some-number-of-greats uncle's unit, the 5th MI infantry, had "Dulcet et decorum est pro patria mori" on their regimental medallion.

And as a somewhat amusing story... he was 15 at the end of the war, married, became a widower, and remarried much later in life to a woman born in 1878. When he died, she was a Civil War widow, drawing a Civil War pension until she died, in 1980!

Toaster 802 said...

Great thought provoking post, Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Well put. Many people did a lot of thankless jobs in a lot of lousy places, most of which were well out of the public eye for different reasons.


Six said...

Thanks BP.

wolfwalker said...

I have always rabidly hated "In Flanders Fields." Not sure why, I just do.

I can think of several much more appropriate pieces for Veterans Day -- which is, after all, for all veterans, those who came home with their shields as well as those who came home on them.

High Flight is one. Also on the list are several of Kipling's Barracks-Room Ballads, especially "Tommy" and "Soldier an' Sailor Too."