Poppies for Remembrance

 

In Flanders Fields

Lieut-Col John McCrae, 1915

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 amidst 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.

The red poppy has been part of Remembrance Day services since the early 1920's, and is now worn on other commemorative occasions, including ANZAC Day. During the First World War the battlefields were literally churned by high explosive shells, creating a surreal landscape of mud, entangled barbed wire and water filled craters.

When given a brief chance to recover, and especially after the 1918 Armistice, the first flowers to bloom were the red poppies. In 1915, Canadian Brigade Surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872-1918), was so moved by the sight of the fields of poppies stretching across the Ypres battlefield that he put pen to paper and wrote his moving poem,
"In Flanders Fields."

It has been suggested that this handwritten example of the poem was from memory as "grow" is used rather than "blow" at the end of the first line.

State Library of New South Wales reference
S819.1/M132.2/1
In Flanders Fields and other poems
by Lieut.-Col. John McCrae M.D.
with an essay in character by Sir Andrew Macphail
Hodder and Stoughton. London, New York, Toronto. MCMXIX

Many of the soldiers serving on the Western front believed that the vivid red poppies had been nurtured and enhanced by the blood of fallen comrades. McCrae too became a victim of the war, though not through direct enemy action. In January 1918, the accomplished surgeon became ill with pneumonia, which was soon complicated by meningitis. He died on 28 January 1918, and was buried with military honours at the Wimereaux Cemetery in France.

During the 1920's the symbolism of the red poppy spread throughout the world. The Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia (the forerunner of the RSL) first sold red poppies on Armistice Day 1921. In those days, the League imported silk poppies made in French orphanages. Red Poppies sold by the RSL today assist various welfare programs.