Remembrance Sunday : life and death in the air

In churches in English-speaking countries, today (13 November) is the occasion of a service of Remembrance. It can make us think about life and death in the air.

In London there is an open air service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, led by Queen Elizabeth II, whilst in Geneva the service of remembrance and reconciliation is held in Holy Trinity Church, in the rue de Mont Blanc.

The Geneva service included a recital of the poem "In Flanders' fields", which was the origin of the selling of red poppies to raise money for aiding war veterans. The actual person who had this idea, after reading Colonel John McCrae's poem, was an American teacher, Miss Moina Belle Michael. She later wrote her autobiography, ”The Miracle Flower, The Story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy”, which was published in 1941: the year of the aerial Battle of Britain.

There is another connection with aviation, in the story of Major Lanoe Hawker, a former adversary of the famous World War I German fighter ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron. Major Hawker, who had been the first fighter pilot to be awarded the Victoria Cross, but whose initial burial place had been destroyed, was recently given a new burial place in Ligny-Thilloy in northern France, where he had been shot down in his DH2 fighter. Appropriately, both British and German airmen were present.

Yet another flying reference comes in McCrae's poem, written in the French poetry style called a Rondeau , when he writes about birds flying and singing whilst men died on the ground.

In Flanders' fields the poppies blow
beneath 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.

At the time, those birds would probably have lived longer than many pilots: in April 1917 the life expectancy of a pilot went down from 3 weeks to under 18 hours.

Currently, in this year 2011, we again see both killing and non-killing aviation making the news. On the peaceful side, the Swiss Bertrand Piccard is trying to imitate the larks by flying without burning aviation fuel, whilst the conventional developers are trying to produce aircraft which burn less fuel and produce less noise. At the same time, the military involvement is emphasized by the recent conflict in Libya and the competition to sell new fighter aircraft to Switzerland.

To finish on a lighter note, it should be said that the idea that the most dangerous adversary of the Red Baron was the pet beagle (Snoopy) of Charlie Brown (the cartoon character created by Charles W. Schultz) IS NOT TRUE: this despite Snoopy's heartfelt cry

Curse you, Red Baron



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