Updated: Mar 14, 2020
By: Cora Chambers
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row” are the first two verses of what is perhaps one of – if not the most – quoted wartime poem in history. If you attended a Canadian elementary school, you undoubtedly remember being read the poem “In Flanders Fields” or « Au champ d’honneur » almost every school year as November 11th grew nearer. Or perhaps you remember singing it as a song or incorporating specific lines in commemorative drawings to be hung along the hallways of your elementary school. Regardless of this, one thing is almost certain: the line “in Flanders fields the poppies blow” is still imprinted in your mind. But why all the fuss over this specific poem rather than another of similar origin? The answer to that question is quite simple: it is largely the reason we wear a poppy on our left breast leading up to November 11th.
The rondeau style poem, “In Flanders Fields” was written during the First World War by Canadian doctor Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae in May of 1915. Born on November 30th, 1872 in Guelph, Ontario, McCrae was a poet, physician, and teacher who served in both the South African War and WWI. According to popular belief, he was inspired to write the poem after the death of Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, a fellow soldier who died during the Second Battle of Ypres. On December 8th of that year, “In Flanders Fields” made its first appearance in Punch Magazine in London.
In the poem, McCrae wrote of the sight of poppies growing in battlefields amidst the final resting places of countless soldiers – a phenomenon recorded in Flanders Fields in Belgium and Northern France since Napoleonic times. The substantial growth of these resilient flowering plants in battlefields is proven to be caused by the churning of the earth – allowing previously planted seeds to thrive in the light. It was this high level of disruption in the soil on the Western Front that allowed the poppies to bloom so vibrantly when John McCrae put pen to paper and wrote his famous poem in the spring of 1915.
Inspired by McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” a young American teacher named Moina Belle Michael brought forth the idea of using the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. In her autobiography “The Miracle Flower,” which she dedicated to the late Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, Michael explains that the last verse of the poem is what inspired her to keep the faith for all those who had fallen.
“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” - final verse of In Flanders Field, by John McCrae
Today, the poppy is synonymous with November 11th and has remained a symbol of remembrance for generations. In Canada, the Poppy Campaign is run by local Legion volunteers and donations given to the Legion Poppy Fund provide financial support to Veterans in need.