I will never forget the first time I saw a field of poppies in full bloom. I was living in England at the time and I was on my way to Bath with a friend. We took the scenic route through to Stonehenge and as we crested a hill the view opened up and there it was: a massive field of red poppies.
The poppy (Papaver rhoeas), or corn poppy, as most people know, is the memorial flower of veterans. In many countries, especially in England, the flower is given out or sold by charities to be worn on Veterans Day (called Remembrance Sunday in Great Britain). Farmers consider the corn poppy, however beautiful, a weed. Possessed of a pepper pot shaped seedpod, the corn poppy only needs a little breeze to shake its millions of tiny seeds everywhere. The seeds can lie dormant for years, just waiting for the right conditions. In World War I the soil disturbances—trenching and bombing—provided this, bringing long-buried seeds to the surface, and soon the poppies covered the barren soil with beauty—a place of death had sprung to life.
The corn poppy became a remembrance symbol when Canadian Colonel John McCrae wrote a poem that described the poppies shortly after his friend and former student, Alexis Helmer, was buried.
McCrae threw the poem away, but an officer dug it out and sent it to the press in England where it was published by Punch magazine in December 1915.
In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1818)
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.
In 1918 Moina Michael, an American YWCA worker read McCrae’s poem in a Ladies Home Journal and was inspired by the last part of the poem: ‘if you break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields.’ She decided to always wear a poppy. The notion spread, and today paper poppies are made and sold, raising funds for veterans every year.
When I saw the field in full bloom that day, I remembered Colonel McCrae’s poem, and I thought about the power of writing and how it can help us deal with our emotions through terrible times. I thought about how our words can continue to touch people long after we’re dead. McCrae found beauty, humanity, and meaning after the horrible aftermath of Ypres through this astonishing poem. The Flanders Field poem still makes me cry each time I read it. And I can’t look at a red poppy without thinking of our veterans and how much they’ve given us, and what we owe them. What we will always owe them. Such is the power of words.