Friday, June 1, 2007
Memorial Day 2007: "In Flanders Fields"
The poppy is the symbol of Memorial Day. Do you know why?
Let me tell you.
It was the war to end all wars. Before World War II it was known as the Great War. On August 14, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. At that time Canada was a member of the British Empire. As a result and despite its distance from Europe, Canada also became at war with Germany. Within weeks some 45,000 Canadians enlisted to fight. Among them was John McCrae, a surgeon with a penchant for writing. He was commissioned as a major and appointed as brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of Canadian Forces Artillery.
An interesting thing about poppies is that they will grow in areas where other plants have died. Their seeds, which can lie on the ground for years will often grow when there are no more competing flowers or plants in their neighborhood. The redcorn poppy, the one we associate with Memorial Day, is a common weed throughout Europe.
However, from the time of the Greeks and the Romans, myths have identified the poppy with death and sleep. The poppy symbol on a gravestone means sleep.
The battlefields of Flanders had been churned up and nothing but poppies grew there. The poppies were abundant.
Major McCrae was in the thick of it. The Battle of Saint Julien lasted from April 24 to the 4th of May, 1915. TheGermans had released clouds of chlorine gas against the Canadians. For 17 days McCrae treated the injured including Canadians, British, Indians, French and even Germans. It was not a pretty place. McCrae wrote to his mother: "Seventeen days of Hades! [Hell for those unfamiliar with Hades]. At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend 17 days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."
McCrae had seen the worst of war and what it does to its participants, but one death particularly affected him. A former student of McCrae, Lt. Alexis Helmer from Ottawa, had been killed by a shellburst on May 2. It was not a pretty sight. What remained of his body had to be gathered piecemeal, assembled in a blanket with sand bags and buried.
Lt. Helmer was buried that night in a cemetery close to McCrae's aid station.
The next night sitting on the rear step of an ambulance McCrae wrote his poem. It took him 20 minutes to write 15 lines of verse in a notebook. But McCrae did not like his poem. Rather, he threw it away. As luck would have it, Lt. Col. Edward Morrison, McCrae's commanding officer and a former newspaper editor, retrieved it. Morrison sent it to newspapers in England. The Spectator in London rejected it, but on December 8, 1915 the British magazine, Punch, published the poem.
In Flanders Fields became the most important poem of the Great War. When McCrae had finished it he handed to Sergeant Major Cyril Allison, a 22-year-old non-commissioned officer to read. Allison said,"The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word 'blow' in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene."
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.
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito