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.
At this time of the year, you will see many people in the UK wearing some form of a poppy as a symbol of remembrance. In my latter working years, I had the honour to take part on several occasions in my then employer’s remembrance activities. One talk I gave was, “My family at War”. As the title suggests, it was the role that my family members played in the Great War, The Second World War and later in ‘peacetime’. Another year I gave a talk on the history of poppy wearing. This Reflection is of that.
The poppy has an ancient tradition in Britain as a symbol of death. It was from the Napoleonic wars we first see the wearing of a poppy as a symbol of remembrance. However, inspiration for the current wearing of a poppy as a tribute to ‘the fallen’ comes from the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. Its writer, John McCrae, was a physician who served in the Canadian Army in the Great War.
It was the death in action of a close friend that inspired McCrae to draft the poem. However, there are various suggestions as to the exact circumstances of his writing it. Legend also has it he initially discarded the poem. His comrades later retrieved it. Persuaded to send the poem for publication, it first appeared in print in December 1915 in Punch (the Spectator rejected it). The poem rapidly became popular. Some say the most popular of all the Great War poems.
The poem certainly struck a chord with an American professor called Moina Michael, who worked in the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries Office in New York. After reading McRae’s poem, she vowed to wear a poppy to honour the war dead. Moina then bought twenty-five silk poppies and distributed these to her colleagues. Further to that, she campaigned (unsuccessfully as it turned out) to have the poppy adopted as the official symbol of remembrance across the USA. A French lady called Anna Guérin then met Moina. Anna realised that making and selling poppies could raise money for those French children adversely affected by the Great War. So, she organised a group of French war-widows to make paper poppies. The first sale of these happened across the USA.
In 1921, Anna Guérin came to Britain to try to persuade the newly founded British Legion to adopt the poppy as its symbol of remembrance. Anna offered to supply poppies made by French ex-servicemen. Even though the BL had reservations, some nine million poppies went on sale on November 11, 1921. All sold that day, and the tradition in the UK of wearing a poppy in remembrance was born. The following year British ex-servicemen took over the making of the poppies for sale in the UK.
Interestingly, ‘In Flanders Fields’ is not an anti-war poem, unlike Wilfred Owen’s, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’. Nor does it have the sweeping patriotism of ‘For the Fallen’ by Robert Binyon that contains those oft-quoted lines,
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Indeed, the last verse of McCrae’s poem is an encouragement to keep fighting. Yet, his poem captures a readily recognisable scene and atmosphere. Flowers blowing in a field, larks flying, the sun rising and of course love. In my case, I find the second verse particularly moving.
Wearing a poppy is a personal choice. I happen to choose so to do. A small symbol that says I remember. I remember Private Taylor, A Gordon Highlander, in whose name I wore a poppy in 2016. I remember Private Outhwaite, a Machine Gunner, for whom I wore a poppy in 2017. I remember Edith Cavell (not all casualties of war, wore military uniform) and Noor Inayat Khan. And I remember all the others. Be they military or civilian, male, or female, of any religion and all nationalities that have lost their lives to military aggression, or terrorism. And I also remember Harry Farr and the other 305 men wrongly executed by firing squad during the Great War.
Lest we forget, as if we do forget then to paraphrase George Santayana, we may be condemned to repeat that which is forgotten.
There are so many songs or pieces of music I could choose this week. Still, I’ve opted for Elgar and Nimrod, his most well-known Enigma Variation. It’s played each year at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. It’s also a musical depiction of Elgar’s great friend Augustus Jaeger. In German, ‘Jaeger’ means ‘Hunter’, and Nimrod is the “mighty hunter” in the Bible. So, it seems apt at a time of remembrance to share a piece of music depicting a friendship between two people of those nations.