About this same time in November, several years ago, I was having a conversation with someone from the U.S. when they asked me "Why is almost everyone wearing red poppies in their lapels?” I was a little surprised because I thought everyone, everywhere had the tradition of wearing poppies to symbolize Remembrance Day (or Veteran’s Day). I know it’s not a strictly Canadian thing. I tried to explain about the poem “In Flanders Fields” and realized that I hadn’t read the poem since, probably, high school. When I looked it up and read a little bit more about the poppy tradition I was even more surprised by the question that had been put to me, since little did I know, although “In Flanders Fields” was written by a Canadian soldier the actual idea of wearing poppies as a show of respect for fallen soldiers was an idea born in the U.S.
John McCrae and “In Flanders Fields” (from FlandersFields Music)
On May 2, 1915, John McCrae’s close friend and former student Alexis Helmer was killed by a German shell. That evening, in the absence of a Chaplain, John McCrae recited from memory a few passages from the Church of England’s “Order of the Burial of the Dead”. For security reasons Helmer’s burial in Essex Farm Cemetery was performed in complete darkness.
The next day, May 3, 1915, Sergeant-Major Cyril Allinson was delivering mail. McCrae was sitting at the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station beside the YserCanal, just a few hundred yards north of Ypres, Belgium.
As John McCrae was writing his In Flanders Fields poem, Allinson silently watched and later recalled, “His face was very tired but calm as he wrote. He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer's grave."
Within moments, John McCrae had completed the “In Flanders Fields” poem and when he was done, without a word, McCrae took his mail and handed the poem to Allinson.
Allinson was deeply moved:
“The (Flanders Fields) poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene."
John McCrae’s Flanders Fields poem was first published anonymously in the December 8th 1915 issue of the British PUNCH magazine and is credited with the inspiration for adopting the “poppy” as Canada’s official Flower of Remembrance, which is also recognized in Canada, the U.S., France, Britain and other Commonwealth countries including Australia and New Zealand.
Shortly after its publication, McCrae’s In Flanders Fields poem became the most popular English poem of the First World War. It was translated into many languages and used in countless fund-raising campaigns for the war effort. Each year the poem is recited at Remembrance Day ceremonies and memorial services around the world.
McCrae suffered from asthma since childhood and by December of 1917 his health had dramatically declined. John McCrae succumbed to pneumonia and meningitis on January 28th, 1918 at Number 14 British General Hospital for Officers in Boulogne, France. His funeral procession was led by his horse Bonfire and in the tradition of mounted officers; McCrae’s boots were placed backwards in the stirrups.
Monia Michaels was inspired by “In Flanders Fields” when she wrote “We Shall Keep the Faith” (from Great War)
How she was inspired, in her own words, from her book "The Miracle Flowers"…
“On Saturday morning before Armistice, during the Twenty-fifth Conference of the Overseas Y.M.C.A. War Secretaries, November 9, 1918, a young soldier, the son of A. G. Kneble, New York City, Executive Secretary to the War Personnel Board of National War Workers Council, the governing board of our staff of the Y.M.C.A. Secretaries for Overseas, placed a copy of the November Ladies Home Journal on my desk at Headquarters. About 10:30 o'clock, when every one [sic] was on duty elsewhere, I found time to read it and discovered the marked page which carried Colonel John McCrae's poem, ‘We Shall Not Sleep’, later named ‘In Flanders Fields’. It was vividly picturized - most strikingly illustrated in color.”
“I read the poem, which I had read many times previously, and studied its graphic picturization. The last verse transfixed me — ‘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’.
This was for me a full spiritual experience. It seemed as though the silent voices again were vocal, whispering, in sighs of anxiety unto anguish, ‘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’.
Alone, again, in a high moment of white resolve I pledged to KEEP THE FAITH and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of ‘keeping the faith with all who died’.
In hectic times as were those times, great emotional impacts may be obliterated by succeeding greater ones. So I felt impelled to make note of my pledge. I reached for a used yellow envelope, turned the blank side up and hastily scribbled my pledge to keep the faith with all who died.”
“At that moment three men, as a committee from the Twenty-fifth Conference, appeared at my desk to bring a check [sic] for ten dollars from the Twenty-fifth Conference in appreciation of my efforts to make a home-like Hostess House of their headquarters. I had furnished the flowers before that time from by own purse, and I was not even a “dollar a year man”. It was a pleasant surprise to find this appreciation, and, looking up from my intemse reverie of dedication, I replied: “How strange. I shall buy red poppies — twenty-five red poppies. I shall always wear red poppies — poppies of Flanders Fields! Do you know why?” Then I showed them the illustrated poem of Colonel John McCrae. The Committee was duly impressed and requested the permission to take the material with them back to the Conference room, “Old number Three, Hamilton Hall”. The Conference was equally pleased and after adjournment the men came down asking for red poppies to wear. This is the first group-effort asking for poppies to wear in memory of all who died in Flanders Fields.
I had no poppies at our headquarters, but promised I would get them that afternoon down in the city. It never occurred to me the difficulty I would have in finding artificial poppies of Flanders Fields in the novelty shops of New York City.
That Saturday afternoon, before Armistice, November 9, 1918, I went down poppy hunting in New York City. After visiting several novelty shops which featured artificial flowers and failing to find red poppies, I went to Wanamaker's. After searching in the flower collections I found a large red poppy, which I bought for my desk bud-vase and two dozen small silk red four-petaled poppies, fashioned after the wild poppies of Flanders. Having made the purchase I told the pretty little Jewess, who served me, why I was searching for single petaled red poppies. She was quite sympathetic, for her brother was then sleeping among the poppies behind the battle lines of France in a few-months' old soldier's grave. This personal contact with such a personal reaction further convinced me that this choice of a remembrance emblem for those sleeping in Flanders Fields was no accident but a logical one.
When I returned to duty at our headquarters for the evening hours the men came crowding again for poppies to wear. I had pinned one on my cloak collar, and gave out the others until the last of the twenty-five red poppies was pinned on a lapel of a Y.M.C.A. secretary of the Twenty-fifth Conference, who would soon be on his way to France to do his bit. I wore my poppy until I reached home in February, when I made some fresh ones. Since this was the first group ever to ask for poppies to wear in memory of our soldier dead, and since this group gave me the money with which to buy them, I have always considered that I, then and there, consummated the first sale of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy.”
And that’s why we wear poppies in our lapels on Remembrance Day.
LEST WE FORGET