On May 2nd, 1915, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, 22 years old, was killed in the second battle of Ypres in Belgium during World War I. The next day, his friend and former teacher, John Alexander McCrae, wrote a poem in tribute to the fallen soldier. It was first published in a London magazine in December of 1915. Today, the poem In Flanders Fields is the most well known literary work from the World War I era.
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 A. McCrae
The meadows of Flanders had long been graced by the brilliant red wildflowers each spring and summer, but during World War I, the poppies disappeared. Since poppies are annuals, and grow quickly from seed each spring, the constant trampling and bombing of the battlefields stopped the bloom for four full seasons. When the war was over, and the poppies bloomed again, the display was spectacular. Seed counts were taken, and over 2,500 poppy seeds per square foot were found.
In 1918 US professor Moina Michael, inspired by the poem, published a poem of her own in response, called We Shall Keep the Faith. In tribute to the opening lines of McCrae’s poem, Michael vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war.
Most Canadian Remembrance Day ceremonies feature a reading of the poem. The poem is also a part of Remembrance Day ceremonies in the United Kingdom, where it holds as one of the nation’s best loved, and is occasionally featured in Memorial Day ceremonies in the United States. Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of the poppy custom started by Moina Michael. When Guerin returned to France, she made artificial red poppies to raise money for war-orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries. In 1921, the Franco-American Children’s League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their “Buddy” poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3-cent postage stamp with her likeness on it. Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars take donations for poppies in the days leading up to Memorial Day.
The small, fragile, brilliantly red Poppy is probably the world’s most popular wildflower. The next time you see one, feel free to take a moment and reflect on the sacrifices of all our country’s veterans.
Happy Memorial Day.