Poppies and Poetry for Memorial Day

Our first Memorial Day in the US so I did some background reading on the day to understand it’s meaning in the new culture we have joined.  In the UK Remembrance Day takes place on 11 November and is also synonymous with poppies. We took a walk to the Airman’s graves in Sussex last year that has crosses decorated in poppy pins. The practice of decorating the graves of the fallen with flowers is a time honoured tradition and I was curious about the poppy connection.

Photo 1: Poppy Field in the rain (near Brighton)

Poppy field wet

Here are some key points taken from Wikipedia:

Memorial Day is a US federal holiday wherein the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces are remembered.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote the poem, “In Flanders Fields” in 1915 and included the reference to the fields of poppies that grew among the soldiers’ graves in Flanders. It is said that the damage done to the landscape in Flanders during the battle greatly increased the lime content in the soil, leaving the poppy as one of the few plants able to grow in the region.

Photo 2: Poppy field in Sussex

Poppy field low res

Inspired by “In Flanders Fields”, American professor Moina Michael resolved at the war’s conclusion in 1918 to wear a red poppy year-round to honour the soldiers who died in the war. Additionally, she wrote a poem in response called “We Shall Keep the Faith” She distributed silk poppies to her peers and campaigned to have it adopted as an official symbol of remembrance by the American Legion. 

Photo 3: Poppy Centre

Poppy centre

The first chapter of In Flanders Fields and Other Poems, a 1919 collection of John McCrae’s works, gives the text of the poignant poem as follows:

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.

Photo 4: Poppies and Blue Sky


Poppy blue sky

The poem by Moina Michael is  a rather moving response:

We Shall Keep the Faith

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 lustre 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.

Photo 5: Poppies on the South Downs in Sussex




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