Famous poem provides imagery for generations not familiar with war

Thanks to a reader who contributed a page for this blog from the Dec. 8, 1915 edition of Punch, which was a weekly British magazine. On the bottom right, you can see John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Field.

We had to memorize it in school. Did you?

One of my children came home this week and told us they were discussing it in class. I was happy to hear of it. I doubt they will be asked to memorize it though.

I picked up a kids’ book at LPL called In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae for my own children to look at. It’s by Linda Granfield and illustrated by Janet Wilson.

The book says McCrae, a medical officer, expected to die. He said attending to all the wounded and dying on the battlefield was “Hell all the time.”

He witnessed the death of his friend, Lieut. Alexis Helmer, and shortly after wrote the moving poem.

A reader says the poem “went viral” – hand-to-hand, home to battlefield, and the media using its lines regularly.

McCrae managed to take his emotions and turn them into a poignant poem to salute his fallen comrades.

For those of us who have never witnessed war or even the countryside where the battles were waged, this poem fills our mind with pictures.

I hope you’ll take the chance to read it again as We Remember.

I’ve copied it below.

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

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8 thoughts on “Famous poem provides imagery for generations not familiar with war

  1. One doesn’t get quite that negative impression reading Sir Andrew
    Macphail’s 1919 classic ‘Essay in Character’. A veteran of the Boer
    War, Dr. McCrae’s heart was really with the guns, ex-artillery man.
    His entry for Sunday, May 2nd, 1915 reads…”Heavy gunfire again
    this morning. Lt. H___was killed at the guns. His diary’s last words
    were “It has quieted a little and I shall try to get a good sleep.” I
    said the Commital Service over him, as well as I could from memory.
    A soldier’s death!..” (Helmer’s death is described on the Virtual
    War Memorial website on the title page for Owen Hague who died
    later of his injuries.)
    McCrae of course himself became a Canadian war dead in January
    1918 in France of illness.The entire country mourned.
    What is missing sometimes in understanding the poem is the
    context – ‘Take up our quarrel’ means to Canada send over more
    soldiers – don’t quit fighting or we dead will not be able to rest.
    It’s not as some have interpreted it as telling civilians to wear a
    poppy!
    Hope you’ll show your kids how to memorize these few lines
    even if schools don’t bother with memorization skills anymore.
    Almost anyone asks can repeat at least a few lines, a good act
    of remembrance.
    What’s hard to imagine is the sheer grit of those men keeping
    going in those unbelievable conditions for years. Terrible for
    their women back home, never knowing if bad news was
    coming..

  2. Why the Poppy,
    About the poppy: Granfield said the scarlett corn poppy was a symbol for life long before the poem. She wrote that soldiers also picked them and wore them on their helmets. Around 1919 British and American Legions adoped the poppy as their memorial flower.
    Thanks for info on “take up our quarrel.” Granfield also wrote that even after seeing the costs of war in the Boer War, he believed in fighting evil.
    A challenge to the kids will be to see if they can memorize In Flanders Fields by Remembrance Day.

  3. It’s never suggested that the poppy hadn’t appeared iin literature
    before this – he was a well-read man. What matters is what a soldier
    poet, a middle-aged man from Canada saw at that moment and
    recorded, and how it spread.
    It quickly entered our culture and tradition of honouring those who
    offer their lives in military service and our huge value for those
    men and women who lost their lives, most without even knowing if
    our side had won “our quarrel with the foe”.
    The US was still neutral at this time, and the argy bargy around the
    use of the symbol is a story in itself – ending up in them not observing
    November 11, but their earlier domestic spring war dead anniversary,
    Memorial Day and using the symbol for the living, not the dead.
    Canada’s people took the imagery to heart, and the French woman
    they knew so well from her French war orpanage support campaign
    approached the Great War Veterans’ Associations dominion command
    on july 4,1921 in Port Arthur, Ontario to support asking government in
    Ottawa to recognize the Flanders poppy as our symbol of remembrance
    – and soon Mme. Anna Guerin had 2 million little fabric replicas made
    overseas by French widows shipped over here and available across the
    nation. This is spelled out in news stories of the Globe online.
    The Empire Legion network of clubs came later, ex-servicemen only,
    eager to have the poppy- making business and the money.
    Australia and New Zealand also use the symbol, each with a different
    design evolving over the years as the French supply dried up.
    At least to the 1950s men and dignitaries sat on committees, women and
    children stood in the cold as taggers on Poppy Day.
    It is sad that the civilian role in embracing the symbol, those who were kin
    of the Fallen, the bereaved, is overshadowed by the commercial angle
    and male imagery. Canada’s ‘Legion’ club began formed from existing
    ex-servicemen groups (largely army in those days) by 1925 at the urging
    of the British one, to strengthen their influence on government for care
    of needy Returned Soldiers.
    Does Ms Granfield give her research sources ?
    A help in memorizing is pounding out the beat, here IFF is an easy one.
    You might show the kids classics that still resonate, The Soldier, and
    For the Fallen, both English wartime. ‘Lest We forget’ is earlier, for
    Victoria’s Jubilee, by Kipling.
    One way things travel is in us storing them in our minds’ libraries and
    then sharing them… We all do know that Helmer cross temporary grave
    did not survive later battles, he and those others are only names engraved
    on later grand monuments.

  4. Granfield gives thanks to list of people and libraries, no specific source for text.
    She does write about the silk poppies made by French war widows and orphans sold in North America.and describes “poppy mania” as continuing through the 1920s.
    She said there was talk even of replacing the maple leaf with the poppy as our national symbol.

  5. I turn off when a writer refers to Dr./Lt. Col McCrae by his first name
    as Granfield does. Re her ‘War is hell’ quote to “friends and family”
    McPhail shows the diary entry as “Seventeen days of Hades!” a little
    more likely from a churchgoing man to his elderly mother – he wrote
    her back in Guelph in a series of diary entries, not just chit chat.
    This one 1915 May 13 ends – “And while were doing this (holding out,
    the Germans having their position ‘to a foot”) the London office of
    aCanadian newspaper cabled home ‘Canadian Artillery in reserve.’
    Such is fame !”
    McLennan is active in the 1944 veterans’ recognition activity I think.
    eg the park.. Am always stunned by the Netherlands liberation
    memorial in Victoria Park whichthanks the men who got home again
    in ’45/46 and still are alive in the 21st century – no mention of the
    many who died over there.or the families here bereaved, to save
    their people in the old country.
    An O’Brien family had five sons enlist, 3 to die – Sandford, Iver
    Douglas – unusual home grave memorials on their VWM files,
    and just a tiny newspaper story, war death being so common..

  6. There was talk according to the Globe toward the end of the war
    of having a national flower. Raised by Dominion horiculturalist.
    Maple leaf is considered, the poppy discussed although someone
    notes that one can hardly look at a poppy without seeing those
    far away graves, and no conclusion is reported, Some wanted
    to import poppy seeds by fear of it taking over fields – and
    the association with the other kind of poppy, the opium one
    stopped that.
    The poppy saga in the USA is one story, nothing to do with the
    Dominion of Canada.
    We did not have “poppy mania” and by working together in the
    1920s our replicas moved from support for the children of a
    war-ravaged allied nation throughsharing proceeds with GWVA
    for emerging returned soldiers’ needs, to production, distribution
    and profits going to a central war veteran body, ultimately getting
    trademark on their design – which, despite some questionable
    items in their shop,has resulted in Canada having the most
    disciplined use of the McCrae poppy for our fallen. First to GG,
    last citizen one removed on November 11 – in Ottawa for the last
    decade place to form a blanket over the tomb our Unknown fallen
    soldier..It is almost a sacred symbol here befitting the origins of the
    iconry.

  7. Granfield was raised in the United States her bio says. Not clear
    when she came to Canada. However her book promo 2009 says
    “Despite John McCrae reaching Canadian icon status, his life
    has been largely unknown.” What nonsense. Plaqued, home
    museum, books galore, and with the internet access to all sorts
    of collections and material.
    Hope your kids are being taught to take information with a grain
    of salt. especially those with no bibliographies. So easy to check
    reliable resources – off to double check her Facts re British
    Legion date and US version.

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