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How McCrae’s Iconic Battle Poem Created the Flower of Remembrance

Tue, 11/06/2018 - 10:35 -- Phil Egan


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.

The words are an echo of our childhoods – words taught to every Canadian elementary student.

We memorized the lines, but most of us were too young to grasp the power of the words, or to know the story of how John McCrae’s poem gave birth to the poppies that we still wear, in remembrance of the unimaginable carnage of that Great War, 100 years after it ended.

There are differing versions of how the 42-year-old Canadian major and military doctor from Guelph was inspired to write, In Flanders Fields. Most versions agree that McCrae, second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery, was in mourning at the loss of a close friend – Alexis Heimer.

Some say that McCrae jotted the lines the following day, while sitting on the rear step of an ambulance – in twenty minutes. As he composed the lines, he was in sight of Heimer’s grave. It was located in the burial ground of the Ypres Salient – the battlefield that my grandfather, who fought there, always referred to as “Wipers.”

It was May 2, 1915.

The winter of 1914-15 had been bitterly cold on the torn and desolate battlefields of France and Belgium as the Canadian troops began to arrive on the Western Front. The spring of 1915 that followed was warm. The months of April and May were unusually so.

Spring is a time when new life struggles to be born – even on the battlefields of the Great War. The seeds of the field poppy, carried by the wind, can lie dormant until the ground is churned, as it constantly was in Flanders, Belgium by the thunderous cannonade s of artillery – German and Allied.

And so, the brilliant red poppies began to germinate and grow. As John McCrae gazed at his friend’s grave, the blood-red flowers were the only flash of colour amidst the muddy earth.

McCrae’s words would become among the most remembered ever written about World War One.

More than three years later and an ocean away, in New York City, a woman named Moina Belle Michael was on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters. It was November 9, 1918 – two days before the Armistice.

Picking up a copy of the Ladies Home Journal, she read the rest of McCrae’s poem:

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.

Moina Michael would later describe the effect that the poem had on her as “spiritual.”

The line about breaking faith with the dead called out to her. From that moment, she made a pledge to “keep the faith” by always wearing a red poppy as an act of remembrance.

Finding two dozen small, artificial red silk poppies in Wanamaker’s department store, Moina Michael hurried back to the YMCA to distribute the poppies to soldiers attending a conference there.

From that day onwards, Moina Michael began a tireless campaign, at her own expense, to see the Flanders Fields poppy officially designated as the flower of remembrance.The poppy emblem was first displayed at Carnegie Hall in 1919 during a lecture by Canadian flying ace, Billy Bishop.

One year later, the poppy was adopted as a memorial flower by the National American Legion. From there, the symbol spread to France and Britain – then to New Zealand and Australia, and then to Canada.

Today, clusters of flowering poppies still can be seen from April through August on the old battlefields of Northern France and Belgium. They serve to remind us of a Canadian doctor whose words inspired an American woman to move millions to wear the poppy as a reminder of the “Lost Generation” – the 61,000 Canadians who lost their lives, and the 172,000 who returned with battle wounds.

We wear the poppy in their honour – and with grateful hearts for all who served.

Lest we forget.

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