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.
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.
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
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.