Remembrance Day Poppies

We were doing some morn­ing gro­cery shop­ping at Granville Island. At about 11 o’clock an elec­tric bell rang. For a moment I thought it was a fire alarm. For­tu­nate­ly, it was­n’t. Instead, there was an announce­ment over the PA sys­tem request­ing that we all observe 2 min­utes of silence in remem­brance of the sol­diers who had died in the past World Wars. Then the bell rang again to sig­nal the start. It was a bright morn­ing, a brief break in the rain, and the suns rays came stream­ing in to the mar­ket, while every­body (except for a few fussy chil­dren) stayed qui­et and still. It was quite an amaz­ing moment, in a place that is near­ly always full of activ­i­ty and a low hub­bub of chat­ter. The bell rang once more, and every­thing returned to nor­mal. Out­side, as we walked home, sev­er­al squadrons of air­craft flew in for­ma­tion, in the sur­pris­ing­ly clear late-morn­ing sky (it’s now back to rain as I write this).

The obser­vance of Cana­di­an sol­diers who died in the wars has also been in evi­dence for about a week or two pri­or to today, when every­body wears the lit­tle red fab­ric pop­pies on their jack­et or coat. I’ve seen tele­vi­sion per­son­al­i­ties and sports com­men­ta­tors wear­ing them. You can typ­i­cal­ly get one by mak­ing a dona­tion to one of the vet­er­ans with them on street cor­ners. I’ve worn mine for a week or two, but actu­al­ly have gone through 2 or 3, as they keep falling off, since they’re only held on with a straight pin.

The red pop­pies come from Lieu­tenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem, In Flan­ders Fields. McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario, and as a sur­geon attached to the First Field Artillery Brigade in World War I, he wrote it the day after a friend of his, Lieu­tenant Alex­is Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on May 2, 1915. Sit­ting on the back of an ambu­lance parked near the dress­ing sta­tion beside the Canal de l’Yser, just a few hun­dred yards north of Ypres, McCrae wrote the poem. He described that in the near­by ceme­tery, he could see the wild pop­pies that sprang up in the ditch­es in that part of Europe. He spent about 20 min­utes writ­ing these lines in a notebook:

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.

Cyril Allinson, a young sergeant-major, was deliv­er­ing mail that day when he saw McCrae writ­ing the poem. McCrae looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writ­ing while the sergeant-major wait­ed. “His face was very tired but calm as he wrote,” Allinson recalled. “He looked around from time to time, his eyes stray­ing to Helmer’s grave.” When McCrae fin­ished, he took his mail from Allinson and, with­out say­ing a word, hand­ed his pad to oth­er sol­dier. Allinson read what McCrae had writ­ten, and said lat­er: “The poem was exact­ly an exact descrip­tion of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that (first) 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.”

In fact, it was very near­ly not pub­lished. Dis­sat­is­fied with it, McCrae threw the poem away, but a fel­low offi­cer retrieved it and sent it to news­pa­pers in Eng­land. The Spec­ta­tor, in Lon­don, reject­ed it, but Punch pub­lished it on Decem­ber 8, 1915. Now in Cana­da, it is prob­a­bly the most mem­o­rable war poems ever, and although it is offi­cial­ly a lega­cy of the bat­tle of Ypres in the spring of 1915, it’s come to sym­bol­ize those from the Allied coun­tries whose troops died in World War I. In just thee years in 1918, while still serv­ing in the field hos­pi­tal, McCrae caught pneu­mo­nia and menin­gi­tis and died.

A por­tion of the poem is now print­ed on the Cana­di­an $10 bill. The rea­son that Allinson point­ed out the word ‘blow’ in the first line is prob­a­bly because there was a false rumour for a while that the word was a mis­print on the mon­ey (and should have been the more com­mon ‘grow’). The lines “To you from fail­ing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high” have been adopt­ed as the mot­to of the Mon­tréal Cana­di­ens hock­ey team.

2 Replies to “Remembrance Day Poppies”

  1. The arti­cle above attrib­ut­es our use of the pop­pie to John McReae’s poem, while anoth­er arti­cle sug­gests it was intro­duced world-wide by a French woman to raise mon­ey to assist injured sol­diers. Which ver­sion is correct?

  2. Dun­can,

    That’s inter­est­ing to hear. The arti­cle that attrib­ut­es the pop­py to a French woman is not some­thing I’ve ever heard, though. Much of what I wrote was based on some online research, includ­ing the arti­cle on Wikipedia on the sub­ject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Flanders_Fields . It may be that a woman in Ypres, Bel­gium also uses the pop­pies as a fund-rais­ing device, but I have no infor­ma­tion on that. Every­one here in Cana­da who I’ve asked always has attrib­uted the pop­py-wear­ing to the poem.

Comments are closed.