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.