This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Poems of War and Peace

The Remembrance Poppy
In the Anglo-American world, they are popular: the artificial poppies, present on Remembrance Day. In the „Recipe page for the destruction of millions“, a creation of inforbox.org, the poppies are mentioned as one of the means of destruction. Why the poppies? The connection between the poppies and the mobilization for war goes back to a poem by a Canadian, John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”. The poem appeared anonymously in Punch on December 8, 1915. “In Flanders Fields“ was – at the time – extensively reprinted, e.g. in the United States, which was contemplating joining the war. Talking about the poem today raises a bigger issue: the question of how the remembrance of WWI should be “celebrated.“

About John Mc Crae
John McCrae, MD (1872 – 1918) was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist and soldier during World War I, and a surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium. When Britain declared war on Germany at the start of World War I, Canada, as a Dominion within the British Empire, was also at war. (For more information about McCrae see John Peddie)

The poem is believed to have been inspired by the death and burial of McCrae’s friend and former militia pal, Lt. Alexis Helmer, who was killed in the battle of Ypres. The poem draws from McCrae’s first hand experiences on the front line and his times treating the wounded soldiers.

 
“In Flanders Fields”: Performances

War poetry in former time had been largely celebratory, an exercise in patriotism. There are bad examples tha put the poem in scene. Here a few more sober examples of the reading of McCrea’s poem.

“In Flanders Field” read by Anthony Davies. (Uploaded 15.01.2009. ©2014 blue dot music)

In a new video commemorating the 100th anniversary of the poem “In Flanders Fields”, Canadian songwriter, painter and poet Leonard Cohen recited the poem.

The Poem
The quotes from the text are based on In Flanders Fields and Other Poems, a 1919 collection of McCrae’s works. The initial lines evoke the poppies:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place …

The poem is written from the point of view of the dead soldiers. They speak about their sacrifices:

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow …

However, there is a strong sense of optimism and hope, celebrating the soldiers‘ bravery and dedication:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch.

From a contemporary perspective it’s hard to digest the last lines. Everything is said, first and foremost the plea to continue the mission for which the fallen soldiers seem to have died. Nevertheless McCrae tries to rub it in, giving his readers a bad feeling if they don’t comply:

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poem is written in the format of a French rondeau. (For more information about stylistic features see here.

As with many of the most popular works of the First World War, the poem was written early in the conflict, before the romanticism of war turned to bitterness and disillusion for soldiers and civilians alike.

Responses to McCrae’s poem
Buy_Victory_Bonds_scaliert
As a result of its popularity, parts of “in Flanders Fields” have been used in propaganda efforts and appeals to recruit soldiers and raise money selling war bonds. The illustration shows a soldier staring down at a white cross surrounded by red poppies. The text „If ye break faith ~ we shall not sleep“ and „Buy Victory Bonds“ are written at the top and bottom respectively.

“The poppy war” and the battle over remembrance
In 2010 , Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow did not wear a poppy when he read the news. Many presenters on television chose to at this time of year, but he did not. This led to controversy. The BBC reported: ‘TV’s Snow rejects ‘poppy fascism’‘. G.M. Griffith gave the story:

The poppy is worn as a symbol of remembrance for the deaths of soldiers during war. The blood-red flower has been associated with death in war at least since Waterloo: it flourishes in turned over ground, such as fields churned up by horses and artillery, or, a century later on the Western Front, folded and cratered by massive shell explosions. Fed by lime and human fertiliser, the poppy famously began to cover Flander’s fields.” (Griffith)

Royal_British_Legion's_Paper_Poppy_-_white_backgroundThe controversy about the newsreader not wearing a flower on Remembrance Day opened a bigger debate. Griffith:

Meanwhile there seems to be a more bothersome problem with remembering the First World War on television. Where are the stories and accounts of WWI on the mainstream terrestrial stations? A week before the anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the BBC hasn’t shown a single new documentary on the conflict. Less emotive perhaps, but more important for the nation’s remembrance than the fact that a telly newsreader isn’t wearing a flower?

And Griffith added:

At any rate, in a nice irony, Channel 4 has repeated a documentary on the First World War, ‘Not Forgotten’. Presented by Ian Hislop, it looks at the history of the reviled ‘conchies’, or conscientious objectors to the war. These were people who objected totally to the fighting, and decided to take no part in it, for personal or religious reasons. They suffered social isolation– and worse.

But for a Dream
One of the most interesting and overlooked poems written by a soldier of the so-called Great War was a poem dedicated to his daughter, written a few days before his death. Thomas Michael („Tom“) Kettle (1880 – 1916) was an Irish economist, journalist, barrister, writer, poet, soldier and Home Rule politician. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913, then on the outbreak of World War I in 1914 enlisted for service in an Irish regiment. Shortly before he was killed during an assault on the village of Ginchy, Kettle, the then thirty-six year old father wrote a poem dedicated it to his three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth: “To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God”. (Here is the text. In his poem Kettle imagines his daughter asking him why he left them to fight for Britain:

… some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.

His attempt to find an explanation:

Know that we fools, …
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream …

The dream is defined as “… the secret Scripture of the poor.”

Around that time, in a letter to his wife, Tom Kettle wrote, “…. If God spares me I shall accept it as a special mission to preach love and peace for the rest of my life. … I want to live, too, to use all my powers of thinking, writing and working to drive out of civilization this foul thing called War and to put in its place understanding and comradeship….”

Acknowledgements

“Canadian war bonds poster.
Buelens, Geert. Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe. Reviewed by Eleanor Careless.
Cummings, Michael J. “In Flanders Fields. By John A. McCrae (1872-1918): A Study Guide“.
Griffiths, G. M. “Poppy wars: the battle over remembrance“. Move him into the Sun Nov. 11, 2010.
“Poppies on Lake Geneva, Montreux”.
The GreatWar 1914-1918. “Inspiration for the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae“.
Peddie, John. “Prose & Poetry – The Story of John McCrae “ Website of the McCrae House.
“John McCrae”. Wikipedia.
“In Flanders Fields”. Wikipedia.
Inscription of the complete poem in a bronze „book“ at the John McCrae memorial at his birthplace in Guelph, Ontario.
“John McCrae”. Wikipedia.
“Remembrance poppy“ Wikipedia.
“In Flanders Fields”. Wikipedia.

 

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