Tuesday, May 27, 2014

In Flanders Fields

This past weekend my husband and I stopped in at the grocery store to pick up a few things, and made a donation to a veterans’ group soliciting funds outside the door. We were given a small red paper poppy as a token of thanks, and that got me wondering...and researching...and of course, telling you what I found.

The poppy as a symbol of remembrance of those hurt and fallen in war dates to the First World War, a conflict that claimed the lives of so many promising young men, many still in their teens. Great Britain lost so many men that two million women of marriageable age were considered “redundant” because there simply weren’t enough husbands for them (yes, an appalling way of putting it...but also an appalling statistic.)

Much of the actual fighting took place across a swathe of Europe including what is now Belgium and parts of northeastern France. This was primarily an agricultural area, with fields of grain interspersed by woods and small villages—a green, gentle place. But the trench warfare and heavy artillery of the war scarred the land, destroying the fields and the forests, leaving it a wasteland of dead trees and bare earth and mud...until spring arrived. And suddenly the barren, disturbed earth began to sprout...with poppies. You see, the red field (or corn) poppy is a common wildflower in these parts, happily lending a glow of color to the edges of the wheat and grain fields. It blooms between May and August, and its seeds scatter on the wind and lie dormant until the spring plowing disturbs the soil and gives them a chance to grow. Spring plowing didn’t always happen in 1915 and 1916 and 1917...but fighting left the ground torn and open...and the poppies began to sprout, growing in clusters on battlefields and cemeteries. Many noticed this, and a poem written in May 1915 by a Canadian field surgeon, Lt.-Colonel John McCrae, captured the image:

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.

In 1918, just days before the Armistice was declared that would end the fighting in the fields of Flanders, an indefatigable YMCA volunteer in New York named Moina Michael found a copy of the poem in Ladies’ Home Journal and was deeply moved by it. She made a personal pledge to always wear a poppy in remembrance of the dead of the war, and that pledge quickly became a campaign. It took a great deal of work on her part, but eventually the American Legion adopted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance in 1920, and other organizations world-wide eventually followed suit.

5 comments:

Regina Scott said...

Growing up near military bases, I remember veterans selling or giving out the red cloth poppies. Thanks for putting it in context. A sobering and thought-provoking post.

annebingham said...

I still have last weekend's poppy tied to the buckle of my purse. WWI was such a tragedy in all regards, not least of which, as I understand it, were the terms of the Armistice, which were so severe as to sow the seeds for WWII.

Marissa Doyle said...

There's a very interesting theory about the Treaty of Versailles, Anne--that Woodrow Wilson was not happy about many of the terms and reparations being imposed on Germany...and then he caught a late case of the flu. After that, his attitude toward the treaty changed, and he supported the harsh terms; some medical historians wonder if he suffered brain damage during his illness, which caused his about-face.

annebingham said...

I read that, Marissa, I think in a book that came out about 10 years ago, The Great Influenza: the epic story of the greatest plague in history by John M. Barry. Talk about your scary novel (which is why I don't read horror--real life is scary enough!) I was upset for days. IIRC, Wilson was so changed that the French negotiator was able to push through all sorts of punitive measures--another nation may have been involved as well.

Another image that haunts me is the troop train that left one Army base--maybe Maryland?--and by the time it arrived at its destination --Atlanta or maybe Florida--so many soldiers had sickened and died.

I'm not sure if it was in that book or someplace else, but I did read that the effects of the flu were so devastating in this country that it was suppressed (probably not deliberately) in literature and in academic study for decades. With all the fiction I've read--probably hundreds of books a year throughout my life, it's stunning to realize that the first mention I'd ever seen of the flu epidemic in a novel was after 2000, in (Palace Beautiful by Sarah deFord Williams, a middle-grade novel. My theory is that the flu goes a long way to explain the giddiness of the Twenties, doesn't it? "We survived, but tomorrow is uncertain so let's live for the day!"

annebingham said...

er...I got the subtitle of Barry's book wrong. It's the epic story of the deadliest plague in history." *blushes*