Remembrance Day, the Red Poppy, and “In Flanders Fields”

by Joey deVilla on November 11, 2013

A green field blooming with red poppies.

Poppies thrive in overturned soil, which is why they bloom in battlefields.

I’m in the United States as I write this, where November 11th — the anniversary of the end of World War I, also known as the Great War — is referred to as Veterans Day. In Canada and many other Commonwealth countries, November 11th is referred to as Remembrance Day.

Photo of Lt. Col. John Alexander McCrae, circa 1914.

Lt. Col. John Alexander McCrae, author of In Flanders Fields..

The symbol of Remembrance Day is the poppy, which grew in abundance in some of Europe’s bloodiest battlefields during World War I, and became the central image of In Flanders Fields, a poem written by Canadian soldier Lt. Col. John Alexander McCrae, a field surgeon assigned to the First Field Artillery Brigade after a particularly bloody battle in Ypres that started on April 22, 1915 and that lasted 17 days. After performing a funeral for his Alexis Helmer (no chaplain was available), McCrae sat in the back of an ambulance, from which wild poppies could be seen growing in a nearby cemetery, and wrote the following into his notebook:

John McCrae's poem, 'In Flanders Fields', written in his own handwriting.

Here’s the text of the poem:

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.

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.

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.

He showed the poem to a Cyril Allinson, a 22 year-old sergeant-major, who was delivering mail at the time. Allinson is quoted as saying:

His face was very tired but calm as we wrote. He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave.

The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind.

It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.

McCrae wasn’t satisfied with the poem and tossed it away. Luckily, a fellow officer retrieved it, and it was submitted to two British magazines: The Spectator and Punch. The Spectator rejected it, but fortunately for generations of soldiers, Punch saw fit to publish it in December 1915.

For our soldiers and the sacrifices they made, I’d like to say “thank you”.

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