TGIF: ‘Flanders Fields’ poem explores sorrow after ultimate sacrifice

Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

When Americans pause each May to salute members of our military who have made the ultimate sacrifice, I struggle to find adequate words. Fortunately, someone else has already done that, so I come back to those famous words each Memorial Day weekend.

Forgive me for repeating myself, but revisiting a tribute written during the first World War has become something of a tradition at the Bulletin. For that reason, I don’t feel so bad about restating it. Actually, it feels like a privilege to be able to do so. It’s a tradition started by a former staff writer, Harriette Graves, for whom the handful of national holidays that honor America’s armed forces were personally important. She introduced me to this particular poem decades ago because she wrote about it every Memorial Day, and so I’ve decided to continue her efforts.

“In Flanders Fields,” the emotional tribute to fallen soldiers written by Canadian army physician John McCrae, was almost lost. For some reason, McCrae was dissatisfied with his work, and he threw away his only copy.

Colleagues were more impressed, however, and it has endured as one of the most memorable war poems ever written — a legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915.

Wild poppies flower when other plants around them are dead. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years, but when there is no competing vegetation, which happens when someone tills the ground, those seeds will sprout.

Churned soil was abundant on the battlefield of the Western Front in Belgium. So in May 1915, when McCrae wrote his poem, blood-red poppies — also considered a symbol of sleep — blossomed around him in a way no one there had ever seen.

Major McCrae, a surgeon attached to the Canadian 1st Field Artillery Brigade, had spent more than two weeks treating injured men Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans in the Ypres salient. It had been an ordeal he thought hardly survivable. 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 a chaplain. The service was conducted in darkness to maintain security.

The next evening, sitting on the rear step of an ambulance, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem.

Initially titled “We Shall Not Sleep,” the work was almost never published. The unit’s commanding officer retrieved it from the trash and sent it to newspapers in England.

One London publication rejected it, but “Punch” published it on Dec. 8, 1915.

I’ve pulled these historic details from several public sources, but the message found in the poem is as fresh as this morning’s headlines.

Generations later, “In Flanders Fields” is perhaps the best-known tribute to those who gave their lives in military battle. However, it will not be the only tribute which will be voiced this weekend. The sacrifices that today’s generation of freedom-fighters are making bring the struggles of World War I and all other military conflicts through our nation’s history into focus.

In peacetime, the sacrifices such patriots made — allowing others to enjoy the freedoms we so often take for granted — can be easily forgotten, especially now as we continue to deal with public health and economic challenges. Those many freedoms are just as easily taken for granted during times of conflict when battles are waged far from home.

Debates rage about when, where, and for how long we should put our troops in harm’s way, but the dedication of our military men and women is never up for debate. On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember them and those who served before them, but especially those who sacrificed everything for freedom.

We also remember the poem written by McCrae more than a century ago:

In Flanders fields the poppies grow 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.

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column “TGIF” appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at tgifcolumn@yahoo.com.