This very resilient weed, yes, they are technically classified as weeds, became a symbol of hope and perseverance during a very bleak and somber time in our history, the First World War.
Some war weary soldiers appreciated seeing these bright pops of color so much, they would pluck the colorful heads, press them, and include them in their letters sent to loved ones at home. Their brightness, in contrast to the carnage surrounding them, boosted moral and they were viewed as a symbol of hope.
A story connected to the poppies is that of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a brigade surgeon for the Allied artillery unit during World War One. He also noticed that all across Europe in various battlefields, even though wrecked and devasted by war, in the spring, these brightly colored poppies appeared in clusters across the desolate landscape.
After a particularly large and bloody battle which killed 87,000 Allied soldiers, including one of the surgeon’s closest friends on Flanders Fields in Belgium, he took his overwhelming grief and transferred it to paper as he composed what is now a very famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.” This haunting poem is written from the perspective of those who died there, lying beneath the earth, now covered by these blooming poppies.
“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae
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’s poem was first published in 1915 and became an instant success, being released in many publications including the Women’s Home Journal. It was here that a professor at the University of Georgia, Moina Belle Michael, saw the poem for the first time and could not forget its moving words. She vowed to always wear a red poppy in remembrance of those who fell in Flanders Fields and for all fallen soldiers. She soon had those around her wearing poppies and through her efforts, this humble red flower officially became the national symbol of remembrance and different variations were sold to raise money for veterans’ organizations. There is a wonderful children’s book written about Moina called, “The Poppy Lady,” which you can listen to on YouTube, purchase through The Crooked Shelf Bookshop in Lewistown, or order on Amazon.
As we approach Memorial Day, I invite you to join me in pausing to remember those who selflessly laid down their lives to secure freedom for others, and for the heartbroken families that were left behind. This holiday is so much more than picnics, swimming, and entertainment, it is also a time of remembrance. Perhaps consider taking a few moments to read this poem with your loved ones. For as Franklin D. Roosevelt put it so eloquently, “Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men have died to win them.”
May we never forget. Rhonda S. Kelley, Executive Director, Juniata River Valley Chamber of Commerce