By William Molls

It is not difficult for me to imagine what hell is like. I may not be a very religious man, but I do believe in hell. I know hell exists. But when and where is up to us.

On Apr. 22, 1915, hell was Ypres, Belgium.



It was then and there that soldiers of the German Empire dispersed 5,730 cylinders of chlorine gas across the frontlines. The gas was carried by a slight easterly breeze until it reached the lungs of the unsuspecting French troops.

The effects of chlorine gas on the human body are horrific. Anthony R. Hossack, a member of the Queen Victoria Rifles, describes the scene in his memoir:

“Plainly something terrible was happening. What was it?  Officers, and staff officers too, stood gazing at the scene, awestruck and dumbfounded; for in the northerly breeze there came a pungent nauseating smell that tickled the throat and made our eyes smart…

“One man came stumbling through our lines. An officer of ours held him up with levelled revolver, ‘What’s the matter, you bloody lot of cowards?’ says he. The Zouave was frothing at the mouth, his eyes started from their sockets, and he fell writhing at the officer’s feet.”

Chlorine gas destroys the victim’s respiratory organs. Death comes from asphyxiation. Depending on the level of exposure, it may happen quickly, or it may be agonizingly slow. There is no treatment or cure.

In November we wear the red poppy, a symbol immortalized famously in John McCrae’s haunting poem In Flanders Fields.

McCrae was at Ypres on Apr. 22, 1915. He was present for this horrific scene and was inspired to write the poem after a close friend was killed in the ensuing battle.

As the French troops fled the devastating effects of the gas, Canadian troops filled the line to prevent the Germans from advancing. The Canadians also discovered they could use urine-dosed rags to counteract the effects of the gas.

We are taught these facts in history class, and how we should be proud of our country because of them. They are a point of nationalistic pride.

But we too easily forget what, exactly, McCrae and the other soldiers present at the Second Battle of Ypres witnessed, and the lesson we were meant to learn from it.

The poppy is not, and never should be, a celebration of war. On Nov. 11, we are not called to remember only how brave and admirable the Canadian soldiers were, or how fundamental a role they played in the Allies victory. We are not meant to celebrate how successful Canadians are at violence, however justified that violence may be. Yet, too often, we seem to believe that’s the case.

We don’t wear the poppy to celebrate Canada going to war. The poppy should be a stark reminder of the horror of war. It is a reminder of the gas at Ypres. The shelling at Verdun. The bombing of Dresden. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The napalm girl in Vietnam. The prisoners of Abu Ghraib.

The poppy is a call for us to always be skeptical of our leaders when they send our military to war, and the reasons they give for doing so. It is a call to never again go to war unless it is absolutely necessary. It is for remembering the enormous sacrifice of soldiers like McCrae, and a pledge to never put them in harms way again unless there is no other choice. It is a symbol meant to remind us of our own extraordinary capability for evil in the name of nationalism and war.

I wear the poppy because I strongly believe it is, and always should be, an anti-war symbol.

I wear the poppy because I know hell is a real place that exists on Earth. If we allow ourselves to forget that, we will bear the responsibility of needlessly sending our young men and women into it.

Lest we forget.

10 COMMENTS

  1. After 100 years I have no doubt of the poppy’s purpose – it is “lest we forget” and so I do not wear one as a protest anymore than as I agree, I would wear it as a symbol of celebration

    • War-baby Remembers

      Being a war-baby, my first memories of childhood are hearing BBC London radio broadcasts here in Canada, Churchill’s voice, newspapers showing pictures of him with his big cigar (why would a child remember that?), and looking up to see B52 bombers flying so low overhead that it seemed you could reach up and touch them. Odd, for a 3 or 4-year old, perhaps not to find it frightening; just goes to show we only know what we know. We didn’t know to be afraid, or that things had not always been this way. Growing up surrounded only by adults perhaps had some bearing on it.

      Not yet exposed to anything else other than war talk, sights and sounds. Soldiers being transported to Camp Aldershot in the east, from where they would be shipped overseas.Hearing them sing “army songs.” Barracks where soldiers lived and practiced marching skills. And then, one day, the all important victory parades where there were the Planter’s Peanut Men on a float tossing “peanut men salt and pepper shakers” to the crowd, and adults lining the streets eating cotton candy and the smell of freshly made French fries offered by street vendors. It was safe for children to be on the streets, but most often they were with family members, hand in hand. Gradually the soldiers began coming home.

      The click click of their boots on the sidewalks, often three or four soldiers walking in unison, out of habit. Sometimes when they would see a pretty girl or woman they would hoot ‘n holler, yell out hubba hubba, or let out a wolf whistle. When they were first home, they still wore their uniforms if out for a walk or with family, a sight a child does not easily forget. Yet still no fear. It was mesmerizing. We just knew, instinctively, that things would get better. Life would be okay. They would take care of us all. And that’s what they did.

      Rations continued for a long time after. It would be several years before sugar, butter,eggs, coffee and chocolate were widely available. Homemakers often traded their ration coupons among themselves, for items each preferred. Shortages were nothing like they had been in Europe of course, but adults in Canada were happy to cut back in order to send food to the troops overseas. The factories that had made men’s upscale leather shoes and were turned into boot factories, once again began to make regular shoes, and the women who had worked there polishing the boots found themselves having to give up their shift jobs to make room for the returning men; this was the case in all industry jobs where the women stepped up to the plate so to speak to fill the void of male workers gone off to war.

      We must be careful what is said and seen around children. They take in everything around them. And they don’t forget. Recalling perfectly more than now seventy years later is a perfect example. The sights and sounds and smells, and the overheard dinner-table war stories are indelibly engraved. Because the war was classified as current news for what seemed a long time, a few years later in school, the curriculum, textbooks, did not cover the war until many years later. Then, seeing the topics in print, we could say: I remember that. Thanksgiving Day is every day, thanks to the troops. Say a prayer, lay a wreath. But do remember. And teach your children to remember, too. Explain to them what the two minutes of silence really means. They need to know: it should never happen again. Never, ever, forget. Give thanks.

      Note: As a now septuagenarian, I recognize that the over sixty-five group makes up the bulk of our Canadian population. We are the baby-boomers. The war babies. There obviously are many of us in numbers. Fortunately most of our age group have never been to war, but we know someone who was or is.

      But there are certainly some of our age group who have been in foreign lands, holding the fort so to speak. Away from their own families, protecting the lives of those in other countries. But often no one gives thanks to the military families, their children and or extended ones, or up close and personal, left behind, waiting for their dedicated military spouses to come home, praying it won’t be on the Canadian highway of heroes.

      These military families are often a neglected or unmentioned group. We need to do more to support them while their military folks are overseas. For many Canadians, the military is a way of life, continued on from previous family members, some of whom gave till there was nothing left to give. Proudly wear your poppy, and share with immigrants how important the poppy is, and what it stands for. Some don’t know much about Canada or our history, when they arrive. It’s up to us, as individuals to educate those who do not know what the poppy stands for.

      Carolyne L 🍁

  2. The horror and inhumane cruelty men were forced to experience in war irreparably damaged the minds and souls of those who returned only to relive these nightmares day after day .

    My dad was a war veteran and struggled to find joy in each day because he carried these memories with him. War is evil. Human beings are not ferile animals – war forces them to betray the the commands of God to Love one another & Do not Kill .

    We must be vigilant not to empower leaders who cant resolve issues without engaging in physical combat for they are not leaders.

    May we one day soon be inspired by a world leader who can inspire all people from a platform of Love not Hate where we never again revert to inhumane aggression towards one another.

    LEST WE FORGET

    Barb Burrell

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