Lest we forget our war heroes
At first blush, red crepe paper poppies might seem to make for unlikely boutonnières. But at this time every year, they appear on the lapels of thousands of Bermuda residents in the run-up to Remembrance Day on November 11.
That solemn public holiday commemorating the Island's war dead marks the culmination of the annual Poppy Appeal conducted by the Bermuda Legion, the charity that works to assist war veterans and their widows.
During the First World War (1914-1918) red poppies carpeted the battlefields of the stalemated Western Front in France and Belgium during the occasional lulls between the fighting.
The flowers grew in profusion in bomb craters, around trenches and often marked soldiers' graves.
The ubiquity of the delicate flower amid scenes of wholesale slaughter and devastation helped to inspire Canadian officer John McCrae's haunting 1915 poem In Flanders Fields, believed to have been written directly after he conducted a burial service for a fallen comrade.
The poem's opening stanza reads:
“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.”
McCrae's poem led to the poppy being adopted as an international symbol of remembrance in the aftermath of the cataclysmic conflict, which ended on November 11, 1918.
Remembrance Day is held on the anniversary of the day the armistice was signed between the First World War Allies and Germany, the suspension of hostilities taking effect at 11 o'clock in the morning — the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”.
It has been said that the First World War broke out “like a peal of thunder out of a cloudless sky”. It's been called an unnecessary war, which is true, but it was also an unavoidable one.
Between 1903 and 1913, the military spending of the major European powers had increased by 50 per cent. Nationalistic rivalries and the competing economic and territorial ambitions of the British, French, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and German empires resulted in an arms race centred upon the industrial-scale production of lethal new weaponry ranging from aircraft, tanks and poison gas to rapid-fire machineguns, submarines and heavy artillery.
What 19th-century German chancellor Otto von Bismark had correctly anticipated would be “some damn fool thing in the Balkans” lit the fuse for a catastrophe that turned the globe into one vast abattoir. Austria-Hungary and Russia had been vying for control of the Balkans ever since the influence of the decaying Ottoman Empire had started to wane there in the 19th century. When the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated during a visit to Serbia in July 1914, the gears and levers of an interlocking series of European defensive alliances began to mesh with a mechanical precision wholly in keeping with their Industrial Age origins.
Thirty-seven days after those opening shots were fired on the streets of Sarajevo, war broke out between Russia, France and Britain and their territories and the combined forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Turkey had joined the fray by October, siding with the Central Powers. For the next four years, a daily butcher's bill was extracted from the combatants, paid for with the blood of their sons and daughters.
“All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them,” British statesman and future warlord Winston Churchill said of a conflict he referred to — not without justification — as Armageddon.
“The mighty educated States involved conceived — not without reasons — that their very existence was at stake. Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win.
“Germany, having let Hell loose, kept well in the van of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals — often of a greater scale and of longer duration.”
Ultimately, 65 million troops were mobilised during a conflict that claimed four empires, cost 20 million military and civilian lives and left 20 million injured.
Tiny Bermuda was drawn into this vast conflict at the outset. A major British military outpost, a state of martial law was declared on the Island on August 15, 1914. The Royal Naval Dockyard quickly became a staging point for the formation of transatlantic convoys composed of hundreds of ships. British and Canadian forces, along with local territorial units, garrisoned the Island against potential enemy attacks. And hundreds of Bermudians in the Bermuda Militia Artillery and the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps, the Island's segregated, part-time military units, volunteered to serve the common cause by fighting overseas.
Boasting a population of only 19,000 in 1914, the 500 young Bermudians who left the Island to bear arms in the First World War represented the flower of their generation. Eighty never came home and are buried in foreign fields.
Bermuda played a similarly disproportionate role in the Second World War (1939-45), the all -too-predictable outgrowth of the peace treaty that formerly ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers.
“After the ‘war to end war', they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘peace to end peace',” a British general drily remarked on the excessively punitive terms of the 1919 Versailles Treaty. The humiliating document stripped Germany of its national dignity, territorial integrity and economic wherewithal, and all but assured French Marshal Ferdinand Foch's grim assessment of its terms — “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years” — would attain the status of prophecy.
Germany, driven mad not only by its military defeat in the First World War but the subsequent collapse of cultural continuity, political institutions and many social norms, urgently sought a new messiah — and ultimately found one in Adolf Hitler, aptly termed “the psychopathic god” by poet W.H. Auden.
To a culture long imbued with rampant militarism and imperialism, the paranoid, Austrian-born maniac Hitler introduced lethal new strains of nationalism, totalitarianism and homicidal racism.
Between 1923 and 1933, Hitler, an aggrieved First World War veteran who believed the legislators in Berlin had administered a “stab in the back” to the country's fighting men by surrendering to the Allied powers, went from lunatic-fringe agitator to centre stage in German political life. First as chancellor, then as de facto legal dictator when the so-called Enabling Act and the Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich swept away all constitutional limitations on his rule, Hitler embarked on crash rearmament and reindustrialisation programmes, all the while remaking German society in the lunatic image of his National Socialist (Nazi) Party.
When war inevitably broke out, a conflict in which Hitler was eagerly joined in 1941 by a Japanese leadership with militaristic and imperialist ambitions in Asia, the world really did risk sinking into “the abyss of a new Dark Age”.
When the young men and women who put on uniforms to defend freedom and democracy had finally defeated fascism on the global battlefield, when the full extent of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and Japanese against those they conquered and enslaved had been laid bare for all to see, a world that mistakenly thought it had already “supped full of horrors” was shocked anew.
The grim evidence of the Nazi Final Solution and the Japanese cruelties in China have long since vanquished most doubts about the wisdom or morality of the Allies' determination to ensure total victory and the unconditional surrender of the fascist states.
Bermuda gave up fully 10 per cent of its total land area for Allied military bases during the Second World War. All military-age males resident in Bermuda liable for military service in one of the two local units (amalgamated to create the modern Bermuda Regiment in 1965). Part-time Home Guard units were also raised as a reserve. The Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps took responsibility for patrolling and defending the East End; the Bermuda Militia Artillery for the West End.
In addition to maintaining guards at the Dockyard and the Darrell's Island flying boat base, the local soldiers guarded the transatlantic cable facilities, beaches and inlets, patrolled the Island, and operated motorboat patrols. Both local militias sent detachments overseas and Bermudian servicemen participated in such pivotal engagements as the Battle of Britain in 1940, El Alamein in 1941 (where Walter Hewson Perinchief was killed in action) and the 1944 D-Day landings in Normandy.
Thirty-five young Bermudian men and women gave their lives in the Second World War fighting for the freedoms we now take for granted. And there are only a handful of veterans of that epochal struggle still with us today.
Within a very few years, that war will have slipped from living memory as well.
But we can never afford to forget the contributions of Bermuda's fallen.
To this end, the National Museum of Bermuda maintains informative and splendidly comprehensive exhibits commemorating the contributions of local servicemen and servicewomen in the two global 20th-century wars, which shaped the modern world and our place in it.
Pupils and teachers from every school on the Island should be encouraged to visit Dockyard to tour these displays. Many adults would do well to do the same.
The sacrifices made by our forebears deserve to be remembered with respect and dignity, not just on November 11 but every day of the year. All of us owe them incalculable debts of gratitude.
And all of us need to bear in mind the words of John McCrae:
“ ... If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”