“In Flanders Fields,” the touching tribute to fallen soldiers written in World War I by Canadian army physician John McCrae, was almost lost to the ages. McCrae himself, dissatisfied with his effort, had even thrown the only copy of it away.
However, thanks to some timely decisions by a few other people, it has instead endured as one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is a legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres Salient in the spring of 1915.
Wild poppies flower when other plants in their direct neighborhood are dead. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years and years, but only when there are no more competing flowers or shrubs in the vicinity, such as when someone tills the ground, do these seeds sprout.
There was plenty of churned soil on the battlefield of the Western Front in Belgium. So in May 1915, when McCrae wrote his poem, blood-red poppies — also known as a symbol of sleep — blossomed around him as no one had ever seen before.
As a surgeon attached to the Canadian 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Major McCrae, who had joined the McGill faculty in 1900 after graduating from the University of Toronto, had spent over two weeks treating injured men Canadians, British, Indians, French and Germans in the Ypres Salient. It had been an ordeal he had hardly thought possible. McCrae described it in a letter to his mother as “17 days of Hades.”
One death particularly affected McCrae. A friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed when a shell burst on May 2, 1915. The young lieutenant was buried later that night, and McCrae was called upon to perform the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain. The service was conducted in complete darkness to maintain security.
The next evening, sitting on the rear step of an ambulance, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem.
The poem, initially called “We Shall Not Sleep,” was almost never published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the paper away. But the unit’s commanding officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. One London publication rejected it and sent the poem back, but “Punch” published it on Dec. 8, 1915:
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.
Generations later, it’s perhaps the best known tribute to those who give their lives in military battle. However, it will not be the only one which will be voiced this weekend. The sacrifices today’s generation of freedom-fighters are making brings the struggles of World War I and all other military conflicts in our nation’s history into much clearer focus.
In times of peace — the peace which patriots fought valiantly to secure — it is easy to forget how much so many have sacrificed so others can enjoy the liberties our nation’s founders proclaimed as God-given.
As many in America — and the rest of the world — question the decisions this nation’s leaders have made to send our troops into harm’s way, the dedication and spirit of those military men and women is not up for debate. On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember them and those who served before them, and honor especially those who sacrificed everything for freedom.
— Brownwood Bulletin