Around Memorial Day in the United States, The Veterans of Foreign Wars can be found selling Poppy Flowers in memory of our fallen comrades-in-arms. It seems to be a rather odd way to commemorate our war dead. Why the Poppy? What is the significance? If you are a veteran of World War I, or a WW I history buff you might know the story, but for the rest of us, this is the story behind the Poppy.
Let us go back to April 22, 1915, to a Flemish town names Ypres, located in Western Belgium. It is the site and date of the Second Battle of Ypres. The Germans and the Allied forces were dug in and prepared for battle. At five o’clock in the evening, the Germans released 168 tons of Chlorine Gas along four miles of the front, relying on the winds to carry the gas to the Allied entrenchments. This was the first time the Germans used poisonous gas on a large scale on the Western Front. The weather cooperated and the gas deployment worked. Since Chlorine gas is heavier than air, it filled the Allied trenches forcing the troops into the open, and they were cut down by gun fire. The Germans had not expected this degree of success. They were not prepared to attack, and by the dawning of the next morn, the Canadian 13th Battalion and the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) had filled the gap negating the German’s success in this battle of 17 days.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (age 41) of the CEF, and Lieutenant Alexis Helmer (age 22) of the Canadian Artillery were friends. We can only imagine what their relationship must have been, that of a mentor to a student, or maybe even closer, as a father is to a son. On May 2, 1915, Lieutenant Helmer was killed during the Second Battle of Ypres. Grieved over the loss of his dear friend, Lieutenant Colonel McCrae took time to bury his friend at Flanders Fields. One of the things McCrae noticed was how quickly the Poppy Flowers grew over the graves of the buried fallen. It must have been a sight of which to marvel. Imagine a beautiful field of red Poppies thriving amidst the carnage of war. Soldiers do notice things like that and it stirs the soul. The next day, while sitting in the back of an ambulance McCrae penned:
In Flanders Fields
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.
As the story maintains, McCrae was not very happy his poem and discarded it. Another soldier picked it up, read it, and mailed it to a London magazine named Punch. It was published on December 8th, 1915.
This poem became so popular it was used in recruitment for the military services, and to raise money for War Bonds. The Red Poppy became a symbol in remembrance of those who died in service of their country, and the White Poppy is a symbol of peace. It started with the Commonwealth of Nations and spread throughout the world. Let us remember those who died for this great nation, and wear a Red Poppy in their honor. Support our Armed Forces.