Yesterday's Magazette

10 – Consider The Poppies Of The Field


Consider The Poppies of The Field

By Madonna Dries Christensen

1918.jpg
Frank Anton Dries-1918

Americans dedicate two days a year to honoring our military forces. Veteran’s Day, originally called Armistice Day, commemorates the day an armistice was signed ending the Great War, “the war to end all wars.” The ceremony took place at eleven a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month–November 11, 1918. The anniversary remains stationary on November 11, but tributes are focused on veterans rather than the armistice itself.

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, dates to the Civil War, when women decorated the graves of fallen soldiers on May 30. Today’s remembrance of those who lost their lives in service to their country is held on the last Monday in May.

During my childhood in the 1940s, Decoration Day was also called Poppy Day. As the daughter of a World War I veteran, I was recruited by the VFW to sell red crepe paper poppies on the street corner on Decoration Day and Armistice Day. By the time I did my home front duty, World War II was in full swing and my two oldest brothers were in the Navy. The names of all those from the county serving in the military were inscribed on a billboard erected in a park on the town’s main street.

A special panel of the board listed those who had died. Some were sons of my parents’ friends and neighbors. The parades on those two holidays marched to the courthouse and paused at a granite memorial to World War I veterans. My father’s name is on this marker, but he had no war stories to tell. On the day the armistice was signed, he’d been aboard a troop ship bound for overseas. It never sailed. He returned home to farm, marry, and raise a family.

Years later, I wondered about the poppies I’d peddled on the street. What was the significance of the poppies? I learned that during the Great War on Europe’s Western Front, farmland had become battlefields. The soil contained thousands of dormant seeds of what was commonly called the corn poppy (papaver rhoeas), a weed that flourished in corn fields. Disturbances caused by trench digging and shells and shrapnel plowed up the seeds, where sunlight caused them to germinate and thrive in abundance. The delicate blooms lent a silent beauty to areas of destruction. Soldiers’ folklore said the vivid red flowers had been nurtured by their comrades’ blood.

An area called the Ypres salient, near Flanders, Belgium, became noted for its abundance of poppies after three horrendous battles there in 1915. The Germans had experimented with a new chlorine gas, which brought an enormous number of Allied casualties. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, wrote in his journal that it was impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams, and the blood. He added, “I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of those seventeen days. Seventeen days of Hades.”

A young friend of McCrae’s had been killed. After officiating at the funeral, McCrae sat in the back of an ambulance watching poppies wave in the breeze amid a makeshift cemetery near his first-aid station. To ease his sorrow, he recorded the scene in a verse. Unsatisfied with the composition, he tossed it away. A fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. It was published on December 8, 1915 by Punch, under the title “In Flanders Fields.”

“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.”

Three years later, McCrae was wounded and taken to a hospital on the coast of France. The story goes that on his third night there, he sat in a wheelchair on the balcony, looking over the sea toward the white cliffs of Dover. He said to the doctor, “Tell them, if ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep.” His death that night was attributed to pneumonia, not battle wounds.

Moira Michael, from Athens, Georgia, was so impressed with McCrae’s poem that she wrote a reply titled “We Shall Keep The Faith.”

“Oh! You who sleep in Flanders’ fields,
Sleep sweet, to rise anew;
We caught the torch you threw;
And holding high we kept
The faith with those who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valour led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders’ fields.
And now the torch and poppy red
Wear in honour of our dead
Fear not that ye have died for naught
We’ve learned the lessons that you taught
In Flanders’ fields.”

Michael, who worked for the YMCA, conceived the idea of wearing a poppy in remembrance of the war dead, and she instigated calling Memorial Day, Poppy Day. Three days before the armistice was signed, she hosted a meeting for wartime secretaries from other countries, at which she spoke about Doctor McCrae and his poem. When the guests gave Michael a small monetary gift for her hospitality, she declared that she would spend the money on poppies. She sold some of the flowers and gave the money to a fund aiding ex-servicemen.

French YMCA Secretary Madame Guerin adopted the idea and made artificial poppies to sell to benefit war orphans. The idea caught on elsewhere. In November 1921, the British Legion and Austrian Returned Sailor’s and Soldier’s League sold poppies for the first time. The Legion adopted the poppy as its emblem. Their annual Poppy Appeal raises funds to support ex-servicemen and their dependents by selling small paper or fabric poppies in November. Each Remembrance Day the Legion lays a wreath on John McCrae’s grave, and British citizens wear poppies to show support to the memory of victims of all wars. Poppy Day is also held in New Zealand and Australia.

McCrae’s poem is arguably the most recognized prose to arise from wartime experiences. Most of us probably could not name the author if asked, but when his timeless words are read at patriotic rites around the world they never fail to stir emotions and powerful images.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row …”

(Madonna attends patriotic parades in Sarasota, Florida. She’s the author of “Swinging Sisters” and “Masquerade: The Swindler Who Conned J. Edgar Hoover.” Website: http://www.madonnadrieschristensen.com)

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2 Comments »

  1. Astounding and beautifully written, Poppies of the Field brings to light a piece of history that should never be forgotten.

    Comment by JB Hamilton Queen — November 11, 2009 @ 10:09 am | Reply

  2. I had no idea. Thank you, that was beautifully written.

    Comment by Skye — November 11, 2010 @ 10:10 am | Reply


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