D-Day plus 79 and the enduring flame of ‘In Flanders Fields’

D-Day plus 79. Years, that is. Today marks the 80th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Nazi-controlled France. Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious invasion in military history, took place on June 6, 1944, bringing together 156,000 Allied troops to storm the beaches of Normandy. 80 years ago today, 13,000 paratroopers, 5,000 ships, 11,000 aircraft and 50,000 vehicles, changed the course of WWII.

Reflecting on this historic day, I asked my ten-year-old son if he knew what D-Day was. When he said he did not, I momentarily felt like a failure as a parent but then I seized the moment to share some history with him. I, for one, feel like I have always known and respected the origins of D-Day. The difference between my 10-year-old son and 10-year-old me is that I grew up surrounded by many storytellers and oral historians. As a child I often listened to the chewing of the fat and recollections of yesteryear at the now closed local country store, where my understanding of events like D-Day and my passion for days gone by were profoundly influenced. My 10-year-old, and all of our family, is blessed that we all have a bit of “storyteller” in our blood as our family carries a rich tradition of narrative and remembrance. On the backside of Memorial Day, my father, who embodies the spirit of a storyteller and patriot (though he would modestly deny such titles) and my unique upbringing inspired the following column, written in honor of the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. -Haley Mitchell Godwin

The enduring flame of ‘In Flanders Fields’

By Haley Mitchell Godwin

“Breaking faith to our fellow countrymen that have gone on will provide no peace for those that came before us,” from the poem “In Flanders Fields.

The timeless war poem was penned by Lt. Col. John McCrae during World War I. McCrae, a Canadian military surgeon during the war, had been at the French line for 12 days under ceaseless German bombardment, the toll of dead and wounded appalling to the soldier. 

“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.”

From his position beside the canal that leads into the town of Ypres, a town in the Belgian province of West Flanders, McCrae wrote in his diary, “I saw all the tragedies of war enacted. A wagon, or a bunch of horses or a stray man, would get there just in time for a shell. One could see the absolute knockout; or worse yet, at night one could hear the tragedy, a horse’s scream or the man’s moan.”

“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.”

The previous night McCrae buried a good friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa. Helmer had been blown to pieces by a direct hit from a German shell. As McCrae was sitting in the early morning sunshine, he could hear the larks singing between the thundering of guns and cannons. At a nearby cemetery, the morning sun shone brightly on the crosses. The cemetery was in a field where scarlet poppies grew, their dormant seeds had disturbed by gunfire and the digging of so many new graves. The poppies bloomed in spite of the carnage, or perhaps because of the butchery. McCrae digested the scene that lay before him and quickly wrote the 15 line poem “In Flanders Fields.”

For me, the poem has become a bridge between generations, a conduit for the profound and a catalyst for my love of writing and words that shaped my upbringing. My father’s admiration for the ageless literary work influenced his affinity for poetry and shaped the bedtime stories he chose to tell me, favoring Shakespeare over Cinderella.

In the quiet moments of my childhood, the hauntingly beautiful verses would weave through the air, escaping from my father’s lips like a sacred incantation. A man of Southern eloquence, my father still often recites the poem he learned in sixth grade, its profound meaning seeping into his consciousness and becoming an enduring thread in our family narrative. 

Serving 15 years and three months in the National Guard, my father’s appreciation for the poem has deepened with time, etched in the lines of his face and echoed in the timbre of his voice. 

As the larks in the poem sing bravely, so does my father, his recitations carrying more emotional weight with each passing day.

The poem’s call to not break faith with those who’ve gone before us carries a universal truth. We are all occupants of this world. Our collective progress is built on the foundations laid by previous generations while simultaneously filling the need to rectify any past wrong turns.

“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.”

This torch is one that my father has carried, in his own way, throughout his life- with his military service and over 50 years as a local farmer, being consistently involved in farming since the age of 12. At 72, he stands as a pillar of the community whose torch shines brighter than no other with the only exception being his beautiful red-headed bride of nearly 45 years, my mother. Her torch further illuminating their shared dedication and unwavering commitment to their family and community, and most importantly to the Good Lord Above. 

The torch of hope, a powerful symbol in the poem, shines brightly not only for soldiers but for all Americans and all humans. It implores us to lift others up, never to bring anyone down. As we navigate the complexities of our existence, the torch of hope demands that we act and speak in honest, genuine ways that enhance every facet of life for ourselves and those around us.

“In Flanders Fields” serves as a stark reminder of the sacrifices made by soldiers and compels the living to press on. It navigates the delicate space between the brutality of war and the peace that follows—a transition mirrored in the struggles of life. The torch of hope illuminates this path, guiding us toward a better future.

It is our responsibility, as patriotic Americans and as members of the human race, to take actions and speak words that uplift rather than tear down. By doing so, we honor the sacrifices depicted in the poem and ensure that the torch of hope continues to shine bright on Memorial Day and every day. A commitment to progress, not just as a nation but as a united human race, forging ahead with resilience, compassion and an unwavering dedication to a better world, is the only way in which we will truly prosper.