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.