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World War I poem made poppies the symbol of veterans

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. ... And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give away." -- From a letter Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote his mother in 1915

Canadian physician John McCrae was 41 when he enlisted at the outbreak of war in 1914. He fought in the second battle of Ypres, which he described in the letter to his mother.

And he wrote a poem about it.

***

In Flanders Fields

By John McCrae

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.

***

Nearly 100 years later, the poem remains synonymous with the sacrifices made by all soldiers, but especially the millions who died in what was called "the war to end war."

When the war ended 94 years ago today, an American professor, Moina Michael, wrote a response to "In Flanders Fields" titled "We Shall Keep the Faith." She distributed red silk poppies to her friends to wear as a remembrance of the soldiers who died.

According to Wikipedia, she campaigned to have the poppy adopted as the official symbol of remembrance by the American Legion, which it did at its 1920 convention.

A Frenchwoman, Madame E. Guerin, attended that convention and was inspired to sell poppies in France to raise money for the war's orphans. In 1921, she sent poppy sellers to London.

The 11th of November was first called Armistice Day. Now, it's Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in Great Britain and throughout the British Commonwealth.

The practice of wearing a poppy is still very popular in Britain, which incurred staggering losses during the First World War. Three million Britons served in the war; nearly a million -- 947,000 -- died, a rate of almost 1 in 3 men.

As tourists to England can attest, every small village has in its town center a war memorial listing its dead in the "Great War," as does Charleston at the Lee Street Triangle.

In Canada, "In Flanders Fields" ranks with "Anne of Green Gables" as one of the country's best-known literary pieces.

During the First World War, the Canadian government adapted part of the poem ("If ye break faith -- we shall not sleep") and the image invoked by it in a public relations poster to sell war bonds. Hoping to sell $1.5 million in bonds to finance Canada's participation in the war, the Canadian Veterans Affairs Office said $4 million bonds were sold.

The poppy appears on the Canadian $10 bill along with a stanza of the poem. And since 1940, the Montreal Hockey Club has used as its motto the line "To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high."

McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields" a day after a close friend was killed in battle. He presided over the soldier's burial, mentioning how quickly the poppies grew among the graves. The next day, he wrote the poem while sitting in the back of ambulance.

It is said McCrae was unhappy with the poem and threw it away. It was retrieved by other soldiers, who persuaded him to have it published. In December 1915, the poem was published in the magazine Punch. As they say now, it went viral.

As for McCrae, he eventually became another casualty of the deadly war. On the same day he was named Consulting Physician to the British Armies in France, he came down with pneumonia and later with cerebral meningitis. He died Jan. 28, 1918, and was buried in Wimereux, France.

There's a museum in McCrae's birthplace in Guelph, Ontario.

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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