The most famous poem to emerge from World War I was John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields “(1915). Memorized by countless schoolchildren in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States since then, its first lines guaranteed that the poppy became the flower of remembrance for that great conflict. The poem’s first two stanzas have become a poignant testament against war and wasted lives. Often ignored is the tone of the third and last stanza, where the narrator’s voice changes abruptly to a passionate call for vengeance and doing one’s duty.
In Flanders Fields
By Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army
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.
About John McCrae
John McCrae, a noted Canadian physician before the war, served as a lieutenant colonel at a field hospital in Belgium within sight of poppies blooming across old battelfields and fresh graves. McCrae himself died from disease in 1918, the war’s last year. His poem moved another wartime poet to write about the little flower:
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
After the war handmade poppies were sold to raise money for disabled veterans. Poppies continue as an adornment to remember those who served in uniform. The poppy only grows in the absence of other flowers and in ground that has been churned. The poppy has since been known as the “Flower of Remembrance” and is worn in memory of our veterans.
The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, MO, uses the poppy to symbolize the war’s great loss of life. Each of the nine thousand poppies on display represents a thousand combatant deaths: a total of nine million dead.