A cold morning light breaks over the muddy expanse. A deathly silence reigns but the sounds of battle linger in the ears of battle-scarred—battle-scared—men huddled around a small cheering fire in the trenches, opening their Christmas mail. Letters and parcels are distributed to a fortunate few. Some are returned to the sack to begin the race home against the official telegram to kin.
One man peers over the top, into the barren frozen waste. He sees a robin, its breast flashing red as it beats its wings to escape the vicious snare of barbed wire. He wraps his Christmas gift, a white scarf, around his bayonet and slowly lifts it above the trench. When there is no response, he climbs out and slowly makes his way across the dead expanse toward the robin. On the other side of no man’s land, his heart wavers in the crosshairs of dozens of German guns.
With a nod to John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, the book is set on the Western Front in, well, Flanders. Beautiful, simple and heartbreaking*, it won The Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Picture Book of the Year in 2003.
The deliberately muted palette serves the bleak misery of the trenches with the robin’s red breast bringing colour and a flash of hope and innocence.
It is a little surprising to learn that In Flanders Fields was not originally inspired by the real Christmas truce and the football match in no man’s land† but that the Christmas aspect was a later addition to the story. Nonetheless, it’s a gentle introduction for explaining to very young children what exactly it is we commemorate on Remembrance Day and ANZAC Day.
Though so many more Australians were killed in the shorter battles on the Western Front—Ypres, Pozieres, battle upon battle—it is the futile stand-off at Gallipoli that is deep seated in the nation’s psyche. Gallipoli, with its patriotic pilgrimage appeal, seems to eclipse these deadly battles to the point of almost eradicating them from our collective memory. And most specially this year, the centenary of the landing.
Though surely unintentional, the mythologising of one failed campaign at the expense of all the others feels a tad disrespectful. Or does the place we focus on matter not; does it simply symbolise all the rest?
As we pass another ANZAC Day—an important one, a century on from the Gallipoli Campaign—we can perhaps look beyond the rhetoric of glory and mateship to truly appreciate the slaughter of millions, sacrificed by their own countries‡ and their own leaders.
Lest We Forget.
We haven’t forgotten but neither have we learned as the entire 20th century and now the beginning of the 21st are showing us. We haven’t learnt a thing.
*It is all of 31 pages, but I have never been able to get past page 14 without welling up and by the end I’m a blubbering mess. Every time. I thought maybe I could read it to my niece, but you can’t read out loud with a wobbly voice and runny nose.
†I always loved the story of the Christmas truce, all the more for it being true. It is a small glimpse of recognisable human behaviour amidst the unfamiliar brutality of all the rest.
‡Or in the case of the ANZACs and many of the other Commonwealth nations, for someone else’s country?