Once again as Remembrance Day, November 11, approaches we see the phenomenon of ‘poppy creep’. This is the growing trend of all the good and great to wear a poppy as early and as ostentatiously as possible. Before even the last trick-or-treater has disappeared, the talking heads of media and politics will have donned their yearly poppy regalia.
It has become something of a race in our culture to see who can show the greatest respect by being among the first to be adorned with the red flower. One hopes that it is not just because we all find it much easier to make the annual token show of respect then to actually think about or, even more unlikely, do anything for the military veterans of Canada’s wars.
Poppies themselves have symbolized death in war since at least the Napoleonic wars, but it was John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” that helped to popularize that meaning of that flower internationally.
The field poppy itself is an annual plant which flowers each year between about May and August. Its seeds are disseminated on the wind and can lie dormant in the ground for a long time.
The spring of 1915 was the first time that warm weather had begun to warm up the countryside after the cold winter at war in 1914-1915. In the region around Ypres in Belgian Flanders the months of April and May 1915 were unusually warm.
The once-rich soil in the fields along the Western Front had become infused with lime from the enormous artillery bombardments, leaving it barren where nothing would grow.Except for the poppies.
This is what happened in parts of the front lines in Belgium and France. Once the ground was disturbed by the fighting, the poppy seeds lying in the ground began to germinate and grow.
The bright red flowers, as delicate as they are, grew by the millions, thriving amid the destruction and often overgrew on the mass graves of soldiers.
In April of 2015, Guelph, Ontario’s John McCrae — a doctor and professor of medicine at McGill University who quickly enlisted with outbreak of war — had spent 17 gruelling days caring for the wounded and performing surgery on Canadian and Allied troops at the Second Battle of Ypres in western Belgium.
Exhausted and distraught by the loss of a close friend, seeing the sea of red poppies that had sprung up in the disturbed ground of the burials around the artillery position he was in, he jotted down a poem on a scrap of paper.
The familiar lines of McCrae’s poem have become some of the most famous words written in relation to the First World War.
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
While that poem has become famous his was not the only attempt to use poetry to find reason in the madness of war.
British poet, Isaac Rosenberg wrote the poem called “Break of Day in the Trenches” that implicitly contrasts the appearance of the poppy with its black center and floppy burst of red leaves to a gunshot wound frozen in time.
The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.
The dark but realistic view of war embodied by that poem and that poppy behind the writer’s ear is, by the grace of God, not familiar to most of us who stuff a few dollars into the tray at Tim Hortons and wear our plastic flowers to show our membership in the community of those who “care”.
So when you see a poppy on November 11th remember that it isn’t about the person wearing it or about you, it is about death and dying and a horror that you are spared from because of the men and women who stood on guard for thee.
School children in Canada are reminded every year of John McCrae's poem " In Flanders Fields" and the poppies that are worn for remembrance day. The poppies, and to a lesser extent the poem, are common on November the 11th all over the Commonwealth. Those symbols and even the date, are not as commonly commemorated in the United States. This is unlikely because the wearing of the poppy and it's connection to "In Flanders Fields" are an American invention. The idea for the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy was conceived by Moina Michael in November of 1918 while she was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters. While reading a magazine she came across a page that carried a vivid colour illustration for the poem "We Shall Not Sleep" (as the poem was miss-titled in the United States) The lush illustration in the Ladies Home Journal, an advertisement for the surgical supply company Bauer and Black, featured a Philip Lyford painting of American doughboys rising to heaven. It was, by current standards, overly sentimental. Ms. Michael's reaction to it was also more in keeping with the attitudes of that time then with our own. She made a personal pledge to ‘keep the faith’ and vowed always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and as an emblem for “keeping the faith with all who died.” After the war was over, Michael returned to the University of Georgia and taught a class of disabled servicemen. Realizing the need to provide financial and occupational support for these servicemen, she pursued the idea of selling silk poppies as a means of raising funds to assist disabled veterans. In 1921, her efforts resulted in the poppy being adopted as a symbol of remembrance for war veterans by the American Legion Auxillery, and by Earl Haig's British Legion Appeal Fund later that year. Moina Michael's response to " In Flanders Fields" is in stark contrast to the ideals which inform our own, more enlightened, age. It is widely understood now that the correct attitude to the current generation of veterans is to wear a poppy for a week or so around the beginning of November and take a minute or two of silence on the eleventh. This is the most that can, or should, be expected of the general public. The government is in charge of caring for veterans, although to be fair it is not considered to be a particularly important issue during elections. As long as the whole subject is kept out of mind for the rest of the year, the government is seen to be doing it's duty and as for the rest of us, we wear a poppy in November. Not content with "keeping faith" Moina Michaels was moved to write a poem in response to Capt. McCrae's ode.
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'll teach the lesson that ye wrought In Flanders Fields.
November 11 is the date we traditionally remember our veterans. The Red Poppies that are so commonly worn have come to mean less about the war that spawned them, or the wars that followed, or the political leanings of those who wear them, but rather they have become a show of respect for veterans.
The truth is that things don’t change much for soldiers or veterans, including the way we think about them, or don’t think about them at all, when it isn’t November 11th.
Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, born September 8, 1886 died September 1, 1967 was one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry described the horrors of the trenches, and attacked the patriotic pretensions of those he held responsible for the war.
Suicide In The Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy Who grinned at life in empty joy, Slept soundly through the lonesome dark, And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum, With crumps and lice and lack of rum, He put a bullet through his brain. No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye Who cheer when soldier lads march by, Sneak home and pray you'll never know The hell where youth and laughter go.
When we take a little time to remember the men and women of our Armed Forces on November 11th, we should spend some of that time remembering that, for some, the battles go on long after the war has ended
Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae, MD (November 30, 1872 – January 28, 1918)
McCrae served in the artillery during the Second Boer War. When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany at the start of World War I, Canada, as a Dominion within the British Empire, was at war as well. McCrae was appointed as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery and was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. McCrae's friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer, was killed in the battle.
Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was an officer in the 2nd Battery, 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. On the morning of Sunday 2nd May Lieutenant Helmer left his dugout and was killed instantly by a direct hit from an 8 inch German shell. What body parts could be found were later gathered into sandbags and laid in an army blanket for burial that evening.
Lieutenant Helmer was buried on the 2nd May. In the absence of the chaplain, Major John McCrae conducted a simple service at the graveside, reciting from memory some passages from the Church of England's 'Order of Burial of the Dead'. A wooden cross marked the burial place.
Lieutenant Colonel Morrison who served in the same unit later wrote about the small burial ground where Alexis Helmer was originally buried. As he described it: “A couple of hundred yards away, there was the headquarters of an infantry regiment and on numerous occasions during the sixteen day battle, we saw how they crept out to bury their dead during lulls in the fighting. So the rows of crosses increased day after day, until in no time at all it had become quite a sizeable cemetery. Just as John described it, it was not uncommon early in the morning to hear the larks singing in the brief silences between the bursts of the shells and the returning salvos of our own nearby guns.”
The day after the funeral for Lt. Helmer Major McCrae was seen writing the poem while sitting on the rear step of an ambulance the next day while looking at Helmer's grave and the vivid red poppies that were springing up in the burial ground. Some say that McCrae was so upset after Helmer's burial that he wrote the poem in twenty minutes in an attempt to compose himself.
John McCrae suffered from severe asthma all his life, In January, 1918, while commanding No. 3 Canadian GeneralHospital(McGill) at Boulogne, McCrae contracted pneumonia. He died six days later. His flag-draped coffin was borne on a gun carriage and the mourners – who included Sir Arthur Currie and many of McCrae's friends and staff – were preceded by McCrae's charger, "Bonfire", with McCrae's boots reversed in the stirrups.
Every generation has had their own interpretation of the last verse of the poem. Are we fighting for Peace, or just to defeat the Hun? Who is the foe? What do we owe the fallen? Do we keep faith by simply asking the questions, or is more required of us?
Every generation has to find their own answers, on this Remembrance day we think about those who decided that the answers included making the ultimate sacrifice
November 11 is the date we traditionally remember our veterans. The Red Poppies so commonly worn have come to mean less about the war that spawned them, or the wars that followed or the political leanings of those who wear them but rather they are a show of respect for veterans. When we take a little time to remember the men and women of our Armed Forces, we can spend some of that time remembering how we think about them when it isn’t November 11th.
The poem “Tommy” by Rudyard Kipling was first printed in the Scots Observer in the first half of 1890, and later published in “Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses” in 1892. While Kipling remains controversial in some circles for his defence of the British Empire much of his work is still surprisingly relevant. With its language only a little updated his poem “Tommy” could easily apply to Canadian soldiers today.
I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.
I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,
But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside";
But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide,
The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,
O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.
Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.
We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;
While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind",
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind,
There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind.
You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!
It is important to remember that things don’t change much for soldiers or veterans, including the way we think about them, or don’t think about them at all, when it isn’t November 11th.