Outside Looking In
With Memorial Day coming up on May 31, it seemed only fitting to be reminded of a famous poem written about poppies, which became the symbol to represent veterans because of the poem "In Flanders Fields" written by Canadian military physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.
In his poem, McCrae wrote of the poppies that bloomed in some of the bloodiest battlefields of Flanders during World War I.
Flanders Fields is a common English name of the World War I battlefields in an area straddling the Belgian provinces of West Flanders and East Flanders as well as the French department of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, part of which makes up the area known as French Flanders. Flanders Field American Cemetery lies on the southeast edge of the town of Waregem, Belgium
McCrae was inspired to write his "In Flanders Field" poem on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of a friend and fellow soldier.
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.
Fellow soldiers supposedly retrieved the poem after McCrae discarded it because he was not satisfied with the first draft. "In Flanders Fields" was first published on December 8, 1915 in a London magazine.
It is one of the most quoted poems from the war. As a result of its immediate popularity, parts of the poem were used in efforts and appeals to recruit soldiers and raise money selling war bonds. Its references to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers and in between the headstones resulted in the Remembrance Poppy becoming one of the world's most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in battle.
The poem is widely known in the United States, where it is associated with Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
McRae was a poet and physician from Ontario. His poetry often focused on death and the peace that followed.
At age 41, McCrae's close friend, Alexia Helmer was killed on May 2, 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium, where the German army launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of war. McCrae performed the burial service himself and marked the grave with a simple wooden cross, at which time he noted how quickly poppies would grow around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance at an Advanced Dressing Station outside Ypres. That location today is known as the John McCrae Memorial Site.
Cyril Allinson was a Sergeant Major in McCrae's unit. While delivering the brigade's mail, he watched McCrae as he worked on the poem, noting that McCrae's eyes periodically returned to Helmer's grave as he wrote.
McCrae was moved to the medical corps and stationed in Boulogne, France, in June 1915 where he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and placed in charge of medicine at the Number 3 Canadian General Hospital.
He was promoted to Colonel on January 13, 1918, and named Consulting Physician to the British Armies in France. Worn down by the war years, though, McCrae contracted pneumonia that same day and later came down with cerebral meningitis.
On January 28, 1918, he died at the military hospital in Wimereux and was buried there with full military honors near the end of the war. He was 45 years old.
The next time you see someone handing out poppies, remember the poem, remember Colonel McCrae, and remember the veterans who fought for your freedom when giving a donation.
Note: During the Memorial Day program on Monday at the American Legion in Minneota, Women's Auxiliary member Amanda Engels will recite "In Flanders Field".
Tickets went on sale this week at Gisalson's Hardware for the annual Rubber Ducky Races that is a fundraiser for Boxelder Bug Days. Tickets will also be sold during the Heritage Event Center's Spring Festival on Saturday, June 5 south of Taunton.
Boxelder Bug Days committee members are planning the full return of Boxelder Bug Days, which was cancelled last fall due to the pandemic.