By Patricia H. Kushlis
I suppose it’s asking a lot to suggest that the red poppies that symbolize Memorial Day in the US and have been sold by American Veterans’ groups to raise money for fellow veterans in need over the years are European – not American - and the author of the poem “In Flanders Fields” was a Canadian surgeon.
Remember its first line – “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow?” Well, the poppies did and they still do. Red poppies grow and blow in profusion in Flanders and elsewhere in Europe. These spectacular spring flowers grow wild in fields from Belgium to Turkey’s Aegean coast(see photo left by WJKushlis 1983).
The poem was written by a Canadian Lieutenant Colonel named John McCrae in tribute to Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, a young Canadian soldier and former student, who had died two days before in the 2nd Battle of Ypres. It was subsequently published in the British journal Punch on December 8, 1915. The term Flanders Fields represented all battlefields in the medieval County of Flanders which, by World War I, had been split between Belgium and France.
These fields were also the sites of the worst and most protracted trench warfare of the entire war.(Map right from Wikipedia)
Yes, the American military did fight, live and die in those trenches. Those World War I GIs fought hard and well in a difficult and ugly campaign. There is a six acre cemetery near Ypres maintained by the US government where American dead from those battles – known and unkown - are buried.
I haven’t been there, but I have visited other American military cemeteries in Europe and the Philippines (See photo above right of the US War Memorial in Manila, Philippines by PHKushlis, 1992). They are immaculately kept and moving to visit. They lend a special feeling of sorrow and reverence for the military who died in service to our country.
No paean to pacifism
McCrae’s poem is no paean to pacifism. Certainly not the third stanza which reads: “Take up our quarrel with the foe; To you from failing hands we throw, the torch; be yours to hold it high. . .” Rather it is a call to continue the battle. Since it was written in the heat of the struggle by an officer on the ground charged with taking care of the wounded and dying, what different could one ask?