Veterans – History in the making 8
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, was serving in Ypres in the Spring of 1915 when a close friend was killed. As the doctor looked out across the battlefields, scarred by mud, disused trenches and barbed wire, he noticed flowers, bright red petals fluttering in the breeze. Despite the fighting that was happening on those same fields on a daily basis and the increase in injured and dead on both sides, he realised that life still went on.
John McCrae still suffering the early stages of grief for his close friend was inspired by the sight of the red flowers, in stark contrast to the horrors of war, to write a poem in memory of his friend.
In Flanders’ Field
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.
During the First World War much of the fighting took place in Western Europe on what became known as the Western Front stretching across France and Belgium.
What had previously been a beautiful landscape was dug up, blown up, bombed and fought over for months and years. The same land that had been farmed and cared for, for hundreds of years before now became fields of mud, barren and unwanted where very little grew. The wild poppies at Flanders had always grown in the area, and still do today. With thin stems and almost silk like petals forming the crown of the flower they appear so delicate, but in reality are both hardy and resilient and grow in their thousands in whatever terrain they find themselves in. And they flourished in the battlefields at Flanders despite the chaos that was going on around them.
Moina Belle Michael, an American Professor and Humanitarian was visiting Germany in 1914 when war broke out and fled to Rome in order to take safe passage back to America. But prior to leaving she also assisted 12,000 other American tourists to return to the United States. The US entered the war in April 1917.
After the war Prof Michael vowed to always wear a poppy as a mark of remembrance for those who died in the war having been inspired by McCrae’s poem. Later she taught groups of injured servicemen and realised that whilst the Government of the Country appeared to care little for veterans, she did and came up with the idea of making silk poppies to raise money for the veterans in need.
The idea was adopted by French national Anna Guérin who brought the idea over to England. The Royal British Legion was formed in 1921 and ordered 9 million poppies with the intention of selling them to support injured veterans across Britain. The poppies sold out almost immediately and the first ever ‘Poppy Appeal’ raised over £106,000 for the RBL. These funds were used to support the work of the RBL in helping veterans with employment and housing.
The following year a Poppy Factory was set up to employ disabled ex-Servicemen in the production of poppies to be sold to support veterans. The demand for poppies was so great that few were getting north of the border into Scotland so the Earl Haig’s wife established the Lady Haig Poppy Factory in Edinburgh in 1926 to produce poppies exclusively for Scotland.
Over 5 million Scottish poppies which have four petals and no leaf unlike poppies in the rest of the UK are still made by hand by disabled ex-Servicemen at Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory each year and distributed by the RBL sister-charity PoppyScotland.
When Moina Michael first saw the poem written on the battlefields by the Canadian Doctor she was inspired to write her own version.
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields d valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
Dr John McCrae died of pneumonia whilst still stationed in France before the end of the war.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.