Many people around the world wear poppies on Remembrance Day.
The reason why can be traced to a famous battle from World War I.
The Second Battle of Ypres was fought 105 years ago in Belgium. The battle raged for more than a month from April 22 to May 25 in 1915. Fought in the area of Ypres (now Ieper) on the Western Front, it was the first major battle Canadian soldiers fought in the Great War. The soldiers called the area Flanders Fields.
Canadian troops distinguished themselves in the pitched trench-warfare battle. They fought through, at great cost, the first major poison gas attack of the war and held a strategically important part of the Allied front lines against incessant German attacks. More than 2,000 Canadians were killed during the month-long skirmish, while another 4,000 were wounded or captured.
Under a constant German artillery bombardment, it would literally rain fire. Exploding shells destroyed soldiers instantly. Rats, disease, and trench foot—ubiquitous in the riven earth of Flanders and all the hellish places on the Western Front—added to the soldiers’ torment.
It was in the depths and death of this five-week firestorm that Flanders Fields and the poppy began a journey that would end with them both having a sacred place in the hearts of all Canadians—and many around the world.
It was early on a Sunday morning—May 2, 1915—that Canadian Lieutenants Alexis H. Helmer and Owen C.F. Hague went to check on a Canadian artillery battery. The battery had dug in near the hamlet of Saint-Julien on the bank of the Yser Canal. Helmer and Hague had only ventured about 10 feet away from their positions when a high explosive cannon shell burst and instantly killed Helmer.
The blast threw Hague 30 feet and ripped his femur in half, nearly tearing his left leg completely off. Hague was transported to a field hospital in Hazebrouck, France, but died there later in the evening and was interred in the Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery.
After a small ceremony the next day, Helmer was buried in Essex Farm Cemetery, behind the front lines. His grave is now lost.
Appointed medical officer for 1st Canadian Field Artillery, McCrae worked out of an 8 x 8 foot bunker that he dug out along a dyke behind the Yser Canal. McCrae was good friends with Alexis Helmer, his old militia pal, and was shaken by Helmer’s death amidst the battle he would later call “a nightmare” in a letter to his mother.
McCrae wrote, “The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
Every inch of trench, every inch of No Man’s Land, and every inch of dirt behind the Allied lines that McCrae could see was cut and smashed from millions of tonnes of exploded artillery shells. The landscape was more reminiscent of the moon than earth.
It was in a waking moment from this “nightmare” in Flanders, that McCrae reportedly sat on the back of a field ambulance overlooking Essex Farm and felt moved to write his now famous poem. He saw poppies growing where nothing should.
They grew in Flanders’ ruptured ground. Both a symbol for McCrae of the soldiers’ blood that nursed their growth and the faint hope—through their flourishing in bitter conditions—that the mens’ deaths weren’t meaningless.
According to legend, McCrae wasn’t happy with In Flanders Fields and tossed the scrap of paper aside when he’d finished writing it. But another soldier picked the paper from the mud, preserving the poem for eternity.
Punch magazine published the poem in 1915 and McCrae became a household name world-wide.
Inspired by McCrae’s poem, Moina Michael, an American, wrote a poem in response, We Shall Keep the Faith. She chose to wear a poppy year-round to honour the fallen. Michael fought for the American Legion to adopt it as their symbol, which they did at their convention in 1920.
At the same time, a French woman, Anna Guérin, was raising money in the U.S. by selling poppies for a campaign called “Inter-Allied Poppy Day” to support French war widows and orphans. Guérin was asked to speak at the American Legion’s 1920 convention. After the convention, the American Legion tasked Guérin with organizing the first poppy day on U.S. Memorial Day (May 30) in 1921.
After that Memorial Day, Guérin went to Canada (Port Arthur, Ont.) on July 4 to speak to the Great War Veterans Association, in the hopes to sell poppies to the them too. Two days later the GWVA adopted the poppy, which would be worn on Armistice Day. From there, Guérin campaigned for an Inter-Allied Poppy Day in Britain and the practice then spread to Australia and New Zealand.
Eventually, most countries stopped buying Guérin’s French-made poppies and they produced their own.
Though grown from Guérin’s fundraising efforts to help war-torn France, the use of the poppy became firmly rooted in the hearts of Canadians, and citizens of the Commonwealth, as did McCrae’s poem, which has been read at probably every Nov. 11 ceremony in Canada since.
Soon after the Second Battle of Ypres, the Canadians were relieved by the British and McCrae was assigned to a Canadian hospital in France. Despite being the chief of medical services, he refused to live in the officers’ huts and chose to stay in a tent, in solidarity with his comrades at the front.
In early 1918, McCrae became very ill. Another victim taken by the Great War, he died Jan. 28 from meningitis and pneumonia. He was buried in Wimereux, France.
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.