The name of John McCrae (1872-1918) may seem out of place in the distinguished company of World War One poets, but he is remembered for what is probably the single best-known and popular poem from the war, “In Flanders Fields“. He was a Canadian physician and fought on the Western Front in 1914, but was then transferred to the medical corps and assigned to a hospital in france. He died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918.
His volume of petry, In Flanders Fields & Other Poems, was published in 1919.
In May 1915, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps was working in a dressing station on the front line to the north of Ieper, Belgium, when he wrote the following poem:
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow The torch; be yours to hold it high.
Between the crosses, row on row If ye break failt with us who die
That mark our place; and in the sky We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
The larks, still bravely singing, fly We are the dead. Short days ago
Scarce heard amid the guns below. We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Take up our quarrel with the foe; Loved and were loved, and now we lie
To you, from failing hands, we throw In Flanders Fields
In 1918 Moira Michael, an American, wrote a poem in reply, “We shall keep the faith”, in which she promised to wear a poppy ‘in honour of our dead’ and so began the tradition of wearing a poppy in remembrance.
It was a French YMCA Secretary, Madame Guerin, who in 1918 conceived the idea of selling silk poppies to help needy soldiers.
Poppies were first sold in England on Armistice Day in 1921 by members of the British Legion to raise money for those who had been incapacitated by the war.
The practice began in Australia the same year, promoted by the Returned Sailors’ & Soldiers’ Imperial Leagure of Australia (now known as the Regurned & Services League of Australia – or RSL). In the lead-up to the 11th November each year, the RSL sells red poppies for Australians to pin on thier lapels, with proceeds helping the organisation undertake welfare work. Since 1921 wearing a poppy has enabled Australians to show they have not forgotten the 105,816 Australian servicemen & women who have given their lives in wars & conflicts during the past 118 years.
Flanders poppy seeds may be grown in Australian gardens. By planting the seeds in April, the poppies bloom in November, in time for Remembrance Day. They serve as a visual reminder of those Australians who have died in war.