How red poppies came to be given out on Memorial Day

In Flanders Fields

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.

– John McCrae

In Flanders Fields, among the most iconic war poems even penned, was written in May 1915 by Canadian physician and Lt. Col. John McCrae after he witnessed the death of his 22-year-old friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, at the Second Battle of Ypres.

McCrae performed Helmer’s burial service himself, during which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed In Flanders Field while sitting in the back of an ambulance at a medical station outside Ypres.

McCrae’s references to the red poppies resulted in the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world’s most recognized symbols for soldiers lost in war.

McRae never got an opportunity to reap recognition for his poem.

In January 1918, while commanding a Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne in Northern France, McCrae died of pneumonia at age 45. He was buried with full honors in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Wimereux, just north of Boulogne.

Helmer and McRae were two of approximately 67,000 Canadians who died in service during World War I. In all, some 39 percent of Canadians mobilized for war in the 1914-18 conflict were killed or wounded.

20 thoughts on “How red poppies came to be given out on Memorial Day

  1. The Commonwealth contributed – and lost – so much in both world wars.

    Not one of my fave poems because I am a huge Owen addict, but in general, I find WW1 poetry very evocative.

    • One of the things I often think about when considering the contribution of Allies in World War I is that of the Newfoundland Regiment which, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, sent 780 officers and enlisted men into action. Some 670 were killed, wounded or captured on July 1, 1916, effectively wiping the unit out in a single day.

      It is said that Newfoundland, which had dominion status at the time, lost so many young, healthy men in that single battle that it proved a deterrent to it seeking independent nationhood years later.

    • This poem always resonates with me. I’ve been to the war memorial in Ottawa, where the names of Canadian dead from both world wars are listed. Canada lost a disproportionately large number of men in World War I, and it left a deep impact on the country. It’s a moving experience.

  2. Pingback: How red poppies came to be given out on Memorial Day | The Cotton Boll Conspiracy | First Night History

  3. Moina Michael was browsing through the Ladies Home Journal when she came across Dr. McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918, two days before the armistice. She was so moved that she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance of the dead. She scribbled down a response on the back of a used envelope, calling her poem “We Shall Keep the Faith”.

    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 where 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.

    • If only those sentiments – specifically remembering the sacrifice of those who died on the fields of Flanders and elsewhere a century ago – had been kept. Too few today have any grasp of what they went through.

      Thank you for your addition.

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