For five years many nations have been marking the 100th anniversary of the years of WWI with postage stamps. We’ve forgotten most of those issues, just as that war is a thing of history to us—with no personal meaning. Today’s mass murders trouble us greatly, as they should, and yet WWI accounted for some 15 to 19 million military and civilian deaths—averaging more than 10,000 a day. And like all war, it didn’t have to be.
Those WWI commemorative stamps generally feature photographs of military personnel and monuments, but a few affected me.
In 2017 Great Britain issued a set of six WWI commemoratives. The four above spoke to me. The shattered red poppy told of peace shattered by war. Private Lemuel Thomas’ life-saving Bible was for me an ironic image. How many millions on both sides of this tragic conflict professed true faith in the Bible? The tombstones in Belgium, at stamp size anonymous, whisper wasted lives. And Isaac Rosenberg’s poetic words from Dead Man’s Dump of 1918, “Earth has waited for them, All the time of their growth,” testify to the human tragedy. (Rosenberg, an Orthodox Jew from Gloucestershire, was killed in 1918 after returning from a night patrol near Fampoux, France, most likely be a sniper.)
This year Slovenia issued a visually haunting interpretation of that endless field of tombstones. The ethereal shape created by the varying light and dark crosses are a mist of millions of lives lost…most now forgotten.
Also this year Poland, whose designers are known for graphic directness, presents us with the choice that faced nations 100 years ago: flowers or explosives. That choice continues to face us. Too often the decision is disastrous.
Ireland’s literary approach to Armistice Day is twice strong. Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae’s 1915 poem is familiar to many of us, and is always worth a reflective read:
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.
Finally, from Thomas Kettle’s 1916 poem To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God:
Died not for flag, nor King,
Nor Emperor, But for a dream,
Born in a herdsman’s shed, And
for the secret Scripture of the poor.
Kettle, a Member of Parliament, joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and died in 1916 on the Western Front.
Consider these stamps. Click the links above and read these poems in their entirety. Tell me what you think…and feel.