It was just a small flower of the field, but the poppy’s shared history with war had extended back to ancient times. In its in white version, it had grown along the banks of the mythic river to Hades, from which the dead would drink to forget the life they would leave behind. Helen of Troy was said to have blended its opium derivative into a wine that would ease the grief of the Trojan Wars. And, of course, it sat at the center of the Opium Wars of the early 19th century.
Its red version had quickly grown in blankets above the graves of those lost in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and was seen to be, either poetically or in reality, the expression of their blood. One hundred years later, and one hundred kilometers to the west, Brigade Surgeon of the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery Col. John McCrae sat in the open door of an ambulance, looking over the red poppies of a field of the Second Battle of Ypres. He had been writing poetry all of his life, but the poem he wrote at that moment became, in many estimations, one of the most famous ever written, and perhaps the most significant poem of World War I.
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.
John McCrae knew death. Born in Guelph, Ontario, he had been educated as a surgeon in the United States, Canada and England, and performed more than 400 autopsies in the Montreal General Hospital (while sharing his poetry with the Pen and Pencil Club of Montreal). He recounted as one of the saddest moments of his life the death of a child under his care in a Maryland hospital. His first romantic love had died of typhoid and he had been a pallbearer.
Now he had been unable to save the life of a friend lost in battle, and it was he himself who had to bury the young man in the dark of the previous night. “In Flanders Fields” was written, and, by some accounts, quickly thrown in the trash because he didn’t like it. A friend was said to have rescued it and sent it eventually to Punch magazine in which it was published anonymously. McCrae died of pneumonia complicated by meningitis three years later, and, beloved by all rank of soldiers and medical personnel, was buried in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Wimereaux, France.
The poem, continued:
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.
In November 1918, concurrent with the Armistice, the poem was published in the America magazine the Ladies Home Journal, and the red poppy then took on its most significant association with war.
The magazine asked its readers if it was “conceivable that we shall break faith with those who die for us?” The answer arose in the United States and England in the form of a 1921 movement to sell cloth red poppies each November with proceeds to go to the welfare of disabled and economically disadvantaged veterans. In England, the newly formed Royal British Legion sold 9 million poppies that had been manufactured in France, resulting in £ 109,000 raised for the cause. In the United States, the American Legion recognized the poppy as a national emblem of remembrance, and their annual sale was undertaken by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a practice that continues today.
Chris Dickon, November 2017
In Flanders Fields: And Other Poems, by John McCrae and Sir Andrew McPhail (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1919).
The Foreign Burial of American War Dead, by Chris Dickon (McFarland, 2011).
John McCrae in Flanders Fields, McCord Museum, Montreal.
John McCrae, McGill University, Montreal.
CEF Soldier Detail, Canadian Great war Project.