Flanders Fields Inspires Poets



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“In Flanders Fields” is a poem written by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae during World War I. Flanders is a region in Belgium where McCrae fought and where the German army launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of war. In a letter to his mother, McCrae describes the Second Battle of Ypres in 2015 as a “nightmare.”

“For 17 days and 17 nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally,” McCrae wrote. “In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for 60 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.”

Alexis Helmer, a close friend, was killed during the battle on May 2. McCrae performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died in the Flanders region. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance at an advanced dressing station outside Ypres, Belgium. This location is today known as the John McCrae Memorial Site.

A million soldiers from more than 50 different countries were wounded, missing or killed in action in Flanders Fields. Entire cities and villages were destroyed and left in tatters, two of which, Ypres and Passchendaele, became worldwide symbols for the atrocities of war. Today, the region still bears witness to the Great War’s history with many monuments, museums, cemeteries and individual stories.

McCrae’s poem inspired American professor and humanitarian Moina Michael of Georgia to write a poem of her own titled “We Shall Keep the Faith.” In tribute to McCrae’s opening lines, Michael vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war. After the war, to help returning servicemen, she began making and selling silk poppies as a means of raising funds to assist disabled veterans. In 1921, the poppy was adopted as a symbol of remembrance for war veterans by the American Legion Auxiliary and the tradition continues today.


 

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies grow

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, 1915



 

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.

— Moina Michael,1918

 

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