Where Poppies Blow

July 21, 2009 by Tom MacGregor
During the war, John McCrae became friends with a casualty named Bonneau. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C46284]

During the war, John McCrae became friends with a casualty named Bonneau.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C46284

Exhausted and despairing of the endless carnage being brought into his makeshift operating room, then Major John McCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps was doing his best to keep the wounded alive during the fierce fighting of the Second Battle of Ypres.

McCrae was no stranger to war. A true patriot of the British Empire, he served in South Africa during the Boer War as an artillery officer. Though he still loved the artillery, McCrae was now a doctor and called upon to serve where his expertise was needed. On May 2, 1915, word reached him that a friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, had been killed directing artillery fire.

Helmer was a Methodist but there was no padre available, so McCrae attended his burial and recited from memory a passage from the Church of England’s Order of the Burial of the Dead.

There are different accounts as to whether it was that evening or the next morning that McCrae took 15 minutes to write the poem with which his name would always be associated.

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.

Published anonymously in Punch Magazine on Dec. 8, 1915, the poem circulated widely in England and North America.

Moina Michael, an American teacher from Georgia, seconded to the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries headquarters in New York during the war, would be instrumental in starting the poppy campaign in North America. She would later pen a reply to the challenge put forth in the poem after reading it in the American magazine Ladies Home Journal in 1918.

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 kept
The faith with those who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valour 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,
Wear in honour of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught:
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders’ Fields.

In the years following the First World War, Michael became a champion of the poppy campaign. Her poem and many others that were considered replies to McCrae’s original poem were published. However, it should be noted that many of them vary in punctuation, spelling and style, including the following reply by R.W. Lilliard.

America’s Answer

Rest ye in peace, ye Flanders dead
The fight that you so bravely led
We’ve taken up. And we will keep
True faith with you who lie asleep,
With each a cross to mark his bed,
And poppies blowing overhead,
When once his own life-blood ran red
So let your rest be sweet and deep
In Flanders’ fields.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;
The torch ye threw to us we caught,
Ten million hands will hold it high,
And freedom’s light shall never die!
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders’ fields.

In answer to a reader’s question in November 1918, the New York Times Book Review reported a number of replies to McCrae’s poem, and noted that “perhaps the best known is by C.B. Galbreath,” which it then went on to print.

In Flanders Fields (An Answer)

In Flanders Field the cannon boom,
And fitful flashes light the gloom,
While up above; like eagles, fly
The fierce destroyers in the sky;
With stains, the earth wherein you lie,
Is redder than the poppy bloom,
In Flanders Field.

Sleep on, ye brave, the shrieking shell,
The quaking trench, the startled yell,
The fury of the battle hell,
Shall wake you not, for all is well.
Sleep peacefully, for all is well.

Your flaming torch aloft we bear,
With burning heart, an oath we swear
To keep the faith, to fight it through,
To crush the foe, or sleep with you,
In Flanders Field.

One other reply to McCrae’s poem has become part of the literary tradition. It was written by John Mitchell, a now obscure poet who may owe his immortality to having been selected by Hazel Felleman for her 1936 anthology The Best Loved Poems Of The American People. Felleman was a longtime editor for the New York Times Book Review. The 670-page anthology features 575 poems, including In Flanders Fields. The book became a staple on the shelves of a generation of U.S. and Canadian homes in the decades following its publication. Distributors estimate there are 1.5 million copies in print.

Mitchell’s poem was titled Reply to In Flanders Field.

Reply to In Flanders Field

Oh! sleep in peace where poppies grow;
The torch your falling hands let go
Was caught by us, again held high,
A beacon light in Flanders sky
That dims the stars to those below.

You are our dead, you held the foe,
And ere the poppies cease to blow,
We’ll prove our faith in you who lie
In Flanders Fields.

Oh! Rest in peace, we quickly go
To you who bravely died, and know
In other fields was heard the cry,
For freedom’s cause, of you who lie,
So still asleep where poppies grow,
In Flanders Fields.

As in rumbling sound, to and fro,
The lightning flashes, sky aglow,
The mighty hosts appear, and high
Above the din of battle cry,

Scarce heard amidst the guns below,
Are fearless hearts who fight the foe,
And guard the place where poppies grow.
Oh! sleep in peace, all you who lie
In Flanders Fields.

And still the poppies gently blow,
Between the crosses, row on row.
The larks, still bravely soaring high,
Are singing now their lullaby
To you who sleep where poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

Perhaps the most touching answer to McCrae’s poem was written long after McCrae’s death by his acquaintance during the war, Frederick George Scott. Scott, a well established poet before the war was an Anglican minister McCrae had known in Canada. Scott served as chaplain to the First Canadian Division during the First World War. He survived the war and his memoir, The Great War As I Saw It, is often cited as one of the personal memoirs of the war from a Canadian perspective.

Scott was part of the delegation that went to France in 1936 to attend the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial. By then he was the Venerable Archdeacon Scott. The pilgrimage and the great memorial caused him to write his poem which he curiously titled—and would not correct—Rememberance.

Rememberance

Now roses of rememberance grow,
Where once the poppies used to blow
In Flanders Fields.

The scent of sweet forget-me-not
Now hovers round each sacred plot,
And those who sleep are not forgot
In Flanders Fields.

The price for peace our heroes gave,
Pray God from future wars may save,
Lest other heroes find a grave
Like Flanders Fields.

The torch they threw from stricken hand,
God grant shall light a better land,
And all the world united stand
By Flanders Fields.

By the time Scott wrote his reply the poppy had indeed become a symbol of remembrance. So much so that poppies are carved on the very monument that Scott had come to France to see unveiled. In a way, the monument itself was but another reply.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com

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