Today in Canada it is Remembrance Day (Veterans’ Day in the US). Our Remembrance Day is like a combination of the American Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day in that it is meant to honour the sacrifice of those who have previously and are currently serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, both living and dead. On this day, in schools across the country children will take part in Remembrance Day assemblies and in cities and towns there are public commemorations of the day. Everywhere you go, you see people wearing poppies, a reference to the poppies which grew prolifically in the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders during World War I. They are also a symbol of the famous poem “In Flanders’ Fields” written by a Canadian, John McCrae. Some say that the poppies in the poem also refer to the blood that was shed during the War.
McCrae was a soldier and a surgeon during the Battle of Ypres and he wrote the poem, it is said, in the battlefield after witnessing and attending to so many deaths, in particular the death of his dear friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer. Apparently he jotted down the poem in his notebook and then deciding it wasn’t good enough, ripped the page out and threw it away. A fellow officer, Francis Alexander Scrimger, retrieved the poem and sent it into Punch magazine where it was published. I wonder what McCrae would think if he knew that the poem he tried to discard, is now recited in thousands of Remembrance Day ceremonies and memorized by thousands of school children each November.
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.
— Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872 – 1918)
A beautiful rendition of In Flanders’ Fields set to music: