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Home » Archives » April 2008 » Memorial Day Poppies

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04/23/2008: "Memorial Day Poppies"


The tradition of red poppies on Memorial Day was inspired by the 1915 poem "In Flanders Fields," by John McCrea. Seeing the poem and its colorful illustration in a magazine, Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker Moina Michael made a personal pledge always wear red silk poppies as an emblem for "keeping the faith with all who died."

She also began a campaign to make the poppy a universal symbol of tribute and support for veterans. Through her efforts, the idea was adopted in the United States and spread to England, France, Australia and more than 50 other countries. Here is the poem:

In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army

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.


McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" remains to this day one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is a lasting legacy of 17 days in France during a terrible battle in the spring of 1915.

Although John McCrae had been a doctor for years and had served in the South African War, this was a different battle. It was impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams, and the blood here. Major John McCrae had seen and heard enough in France to last him a lifetime.

As a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Major McCrae had spent seventeen days treating injured men -- Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans in his field hospital.

It had been an ordeal that he had hardly thought possible. McCrae later wrote of it:

"I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days... Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."

One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former student, Lieut. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on May 2, 1915. Lieutenant Helmer was buried later that day in the little cemetery outside McCrae's field hospital, and McCrae had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain.

The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked near the field hospital, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches in that part of Europe, and he spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook �"the poem In Flanders Fields.



Memorial Day Traditions

Every Memorial Day, families and communities across the nation take time to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation. Americans observe this special holiday in many different ways. Here are a few of those traditions:

Visiting Gravesites -- Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day because it was a time to honor the nation's dead by decorating their graves with flowers. Many Americans make special flower arrangements and deliver them as a family to gravesites of their loved ones and ancestors.

Family and American History -- Memorial Day is a favorite time for Americans to read their family history, look at old photographs and learn about their ancestors, especially those who died in the line of battle. It's also an occasion for reading Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and other historic and patriotic speeches by Presidents and leaders of the Armed Services.

Displaying the Flag -- On Memorial Day, the U.S. flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon. In the morning, the flag should be raised momentarily to the top, then lowered to half-staff. Americans can also honor prisoners of war and those missing in action by flying the POW/MIA flag.

National Moment of Remembrance -- In accordance with a congressional resolution passed in 2000, Americans pause wherever they are at 3 pm local time for a moment of silence to remember and honor the fallen.

Experience the National Memorials -- Memorial Day can also be an opportunity to visit or read about the national memorials in Washington and others around the country.

Memorial Day Parades -- The Memorial Day parade is a time-honored tradition in cities and towns across America, where neighbors come together to remember with pride those who sacrificed so much for our country.


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