Kernels of Wisdom: In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Jack Taylor/Getty Images Wild poppies grow in the 'Trench of Death', a preserved Belgian First World War trench system in Diksmuide, Belgium on July 14, 2017. The poppy has become an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance after it grew in the war-ravaged and muddied landscape of Belgian Flanders. The sight of the poppy growing by the graves of soldiers inspired Canadian soldier John McCrae to write one of the most famous World War One poems, 'In Flanders Fields'.
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
- MONA MICHAEL -
It is the one time during any year when we as Canadians from coast to coast pin a flower to the lapel of our garments, on the left side, closest to the heart. In the days preceding, and on this day, Nov. 11, the simple bright red poppy causes us as a nation to remember and reflect on both the valor and the horror of war.
During the Napoleonic Wars the delicate little blossom had a sense of mystery associated with it, inexplicably it seemed to grow over the graves of fallen soldiers. Again in the aftermath of the war in Europe in the mid-20th century when the soil in Belgium and France became rich in lime from the debris of conflict, the poppy sprouted up around the resting places of the dead, somehow signaling to the skies as the American poet Mona Michael so aptly worded it, “that blood of heroes never dies.”
But the narrative of the poppy doesn’t end there, it would take a string of memorable events before the now famous flower that grew around the graves of the fallen became an annual adornment above the heart. Turn the clock back to May 2, 1915. Thousands of Canadian soldiers had been flung into the heart of the battle in Ypres in Belgium. Here in the fight for Europe, man’s inhumanity to man nosedives to new depths of human depravity, chlorine gas is introduced as the new lethal weapon of warfare. As the green cloud of poisonous fumes drifted across no man’s land, being heavier than air, it would seep into the trenches. Once inhaled, the chlorine would attack the respiratory system, fluid would then accumulate in the lungs, literally drowning the victim from within.
Here at Ypres, 2,000 Canadians died with another 4,000 casualties. It was into this literal hell on earth that a young Canadian lieutenant was thrown. Twenty-two-year-old Alexis Helmer, the strikingly handsome son of Elizabeth Helmer of Ottawa and Brigadier-General R.A. Helmer, left his dugout on the second morning of May in 1915. An engineering graduate from McGill University, Helmer was engaged to be married. Like many soldiers he carried with him a photograph of his fiancee into battle. On that fateful morning Helmer was struck down, his girlfriend’s picture was marred with a bullet hole right through it, a life is lost, and the heart of a lover is broken in two.
The young lieutenant had been befriended at the war front by a 41-year-old veteran of the 1899 Boer War in Africa, a Scot by ancestry, by the name of John McCrae. McCrae had both military and ministerial blood running through his veins. His father had been a Lieutenant-Colonel and his mother descended from a long line of ministers in the Scottish Presbyterian Church. On this day, the values of service and spirituality ingrained in his life were to serve McCrae well, for in the absence of a military chaplain Maj. McCrae officiated at his young friend’s funeral. Writing later in his diary he was to record the words, “Lieut. Helmer was killed at the guns…a very nice boy...I said the committal service over him as well as I could from memory.”
The following day, sitting in the back of an ambulance thinking and silently reflecting, McCrae, who was always known to be poetically inclined, began to write a few lines. That day in Ypres with the stench of war in the smoke-filled air, with poppies blowing in the Belgium breeze and the newly erected cross positioned on his young friend’s grave, McCrae began to pen the immortal words of “In Flanders Fields”. Punch magazine printed it on Dec. 8, 1915. John McCrae would never leave foreign soil, he died there on Jan. 28, 1918 from pneumonia and meningitis.
In 1918, Mona Michael, a YMCA worker in New York City started to wear a poppy in memory of the millions who died in war. In 1921 the first poppies were distributed in Canada. Across the globe a poem written on the battlefield soon became universal in it’s appeal. John McCrae will never ever be forgotten, he himself of course would never ever want us to forget the lines of crosses on Flanders fields, nor the young man who was the final inspiration for his immortal lyrics. Today, Remembrance Day 2017, Saturday, Nov. 11, we remember them;
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 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
(With files from CBC: A People’s History, “Poets Of The Great War” by Russ Swindon, Veteran’s Affairs Canada and The John McCrae Birthplace and Memorial Gardens in Guelph, Ont.)