For seventeen days and seventeen nights, John McCrae, a soldier in World War 1 and a surgeon during the second battle of Ypres in Belgium, said that he and his comrades never took their clothes off or boots, except occasionally.
“In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds, he said. Behind all the noise, all we could see were sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and the terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was a soldier, physician, and poet. He was also the son of a military leader who grew up believing in fighting for his country.
His friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed during the battle on May 2. While McCrae was performing the burial service for his friend, he noticed the beautiful red Poppies that quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres.
The seeds had scattered in the wind and sat dormant in the ground, only germinating when the land was disturbed?as it was by the fierce fighting of World War 1.
The day after his friend’s burial, McCrae composed the poem “In Flanders Fields.” He wrote the poem in the voice of the dead soldiers. It speaks of their sacrifice and issues the challenge for the living to press on.
“In Flanders Fields”
by John McCrae, May 1915
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 composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance at an Advanced Dressing Station outside Ypres. This location today is known as the John McCrae Memorial Site.
I have always been amazed at how God uses nature to speak to our hearts.
In 1918, an American professor, Moina Michael, was so touched by McCrae’s poem that she wrote a responsive poem to the fallen soldiers of Flanders Field.
She vowed to wear the poppy to remember all soldiers who have given their lives for our freedom. She became known as the Poppy Lady.
In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day.
Other countries began to wear a single Poppy on Memorial Day and later included Veteran’s Day to include all living and deceased veterans.
“We Shall Keep the Faith”
by Moina Michael, November 1918
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 luster 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.
The town of Marion, Virginia, adorns the front of the courthouse and beyond with the name of each fallen soldier on a small, sturdy white cross underneath patriotic American flags each Memorial Day.
When you drive or walk by, you will see families with children and grandchildren looking through the flags or kneeling near the cross of a soldier who died in battle.
There are also crosses that read: “All gave some, Some gave all.”
“Some gave all” is why we celebrate Memorial Day; to honor our men and women who died in battle for our families, our lives, our country.
It is the time of the year that we invite our children and grandchildren to visit. We want them to understand and remember the men and women who gave their lives for their freedom. And we want them to feel the challenge of pressing on, keeping the faith, and standing up for our freedoms.
To the fallen, we will continue to carry the torch.