Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD RCAMC

Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD RCAMC (1872-1918)

In my last post we visited the Flanders Field American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery and Memorial in Waregem Belgium. To be perfectly clear, this site isn’t the Flanders Field that Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD RCAMC had in mind when he wrote his immortal poem In Flanders Fields.

Essex Farm Aid Station today

Essex Farm Aid Station today

Dr. McCrae wrote his poem while serving at Essex Farm Aid Station, in the northern end of the Ypres Salient. One can visit here today; it is remarkably well preserved for a British WW1 site (more about that in a future post).

Neither Dr. McCrae, who died of pneumonia on Jan.  28th, 1918, nor Lt. Alexis Helmer, his friend whose death inspired the poem, are buried in the Essex Farm CWGC Cemetery.

Essex Farm CWGC Cemetery

Essex Farm CWGC Cemetery

Having cleared that up, we now fast forward to November 9th, 1918.

To refresh your memory, here is Dr. McCrae’s third stanza:

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 story of the Memorial Poppy (called the Remembrance Poppy in Commonwealth nations) is inextricably entwined with the poem In Flanders Fields, although Dr. McCrae had no part in it. The story instead began with a 50 year old American Professor of Education at the University of Georgia named Moina Michael, who served as a YWCA volunteer during the war. When victory was in sight, she wrote the poem We Shall Keep the Faith as an answer to the challenge found in McCrae’s third stanza.

 

Oh! You who sleep in “Flanders Fields” 

Sleep sweet – to rise anew!

We caught the Torch you threw

And, holding high we keep the Faith.

With all who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red

That grows on fields where valor 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

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;

We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught

In Flanders Fields.

1948 Moina Michael stamp

 

1948 Moina Michael stamp

Although the Remembrance Poppy is ubiquitous today in the Commonwealth nations (The Royal British Legion has a factory in London to make them), it began in the USA. Miss Michael’s original poppies were made from silk and the money raised from the sales was dedicated to helping disabled veterans.

 

 

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official from Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he does work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and has memberships in the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Indian Military Historical Society and the Salonika Campaign Society.