Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, was tending to soldiers brought to the Essex Farm Dressing Station, near Ypres, which was also a British cemetery. As he looked at the grave of his friend and brother-in-arms Alexis Helmer, killed the day before, he saw beds of blood-red poppies growing among the graves and was inspired to write the first words of what was to become a famous poem, In Flanders Fields.
McCrae worked on the poem for several months. ‘In Flanders Fields‘ became the most popular poem of that time, but McCrae would not live to see his success. It was rejected by the Spectator in London, however it was later published by Punch. John McCrae died of meningitis in January 1918, and is buried at the British war cemetery in Wimereux, France.
On November 9th 1918, Professor Moina Michael of the YMCA in New York read the poem. The last words “We shall not sleep though poppies grow in Flanders fields” moved her deeply and she pledged to wear a red poppy as a token of remembrance. She even penned her own poem in response:
Oh! You who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
Moina began a crusade and the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy was accepted as America’s national symbol of remembrance at the convention of the war veterans association National American Legion. Anna Guerin of the French YMCA was at that conference and decided to sell silk poppies to support French children orphaned by the war. She worked to get the poppy accepted as a remembrance symbol by the allied nations in the Great War. Great Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand recognised the symbol for those soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War and in future wars.
The poppy has many links to war. Poppies can be found in places where the soil is frequently disturbed, so there was an abundance of poppies across the battlefields of Flanders. In Dutch the poppy is called slaapbol (sleeping ball) as it is akin to the opium poppy, used for the production of morphine administered to the wounded soldiers. It’s deep red colour symbolises the blood of the soldiers, a black heart like a shot wound.
The remembrance poppy has different colours and shapes. In Canada and Scotland poppies also have four petals with a black centre and no leaf.
In France, the cornflower is the symbol of The Great War, a result of a campaign led by battlefield nurse Suzanne Lenhardt. Like the red poppy, the cornflower (Le Bleuet in French) was the only colour on the battlefield. The blue colour also referred to the light blue uniform French conscripts wore in 1915.
IN FLANDERS FIELDS
“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.
John McCrae, May 1915
Please take a moment to watch this amazing video put together by Flanders Tourism.
We will never forget.