The Cenotaph on Whitehall, London, in November 2004 (with wreaths laid down on Remembrance Day). Photo Chris Nyborg.
The British Legion, a veterans organization created after World War One, known then as the ‘Great War’, began the tradition of selling red poppies once a year to assist veterans. The first British Legion Poppy Day was held in Great Britain on 11 November – Armistice Day – 1921. Several organizations for veterans in the US including the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars quickly adopted the symbol as did veterans’ groups throughout the British Empire.
The red poppy came to symbolize youthful death in battle because of the haunting poem, In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 by Surgeon-Major John McCrae, MD, First Field Artillery Brigade, Canadian Expeditionary Forces.
Surgeon-Major John McCrae, 1st Brigade CFA, Canadian Field Artillery, Canadian Expeditionary Forces.
McCrae had been operating on wounded soldiers for seventeen days in a row during the terrible slaughter of the Second Battle of Ypres, which took place between 22 April and 25 May 1915 near the Belgium city of Ypres in the province of West Flanders. This furious struggle, now long forgotten, was fought between the French Army, with their British allies, against their common enemy, Imperial Germany.
German storm troopers, led by an officer, emerge from a thick cloud of phosgene poison gas laid by German forces as they attack British trench lines. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis. Courtesy of the Guardian of London.
This battle was fought over control of the Belgium city of Ypres and lasted for thirty-three days. It merits a footnote in history because it was the first battle on the Western Front where the Germans used poison gas. The use of such gas is a war crime and had been forbidden by the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare. Germany was a signatory to both treaties.
Red poppies blew across the battlefield during the slaughter.
The poppy is a flower whose seed lies dormant in the ground. It only blooms in warm weather when the soil is rooted up. Because the ground of Flanders had been rooted up by days of artillery fire, there were red poppies blooming in profusion all over the battlefield. There were so many poppies that the wind would often catch the fragile flowers and blow them in waves over the blasted soil.
Hence the first line: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow…” (not ‘grow’ as many seem to write)
Major McCrae was deeply pained by the death of a young friend, killed the previous day by random artillery fire. Sitting outside his field dressing station the next day, McCrae was looking over the cemetery in which his young friend had been buried. He took a pad and wrote what became the most famous poem of the war. The poet himself died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918 and is buried in France.
Surgeon-Major John McCrae’s grave, Wimereux Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais, France
“In Flanders Fields”
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.
Because this poem is often thought to be an anti-war poem, expressing the futility of war, the third stanza is usually left out. You will understand the reason when you read it:
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.
“Things fall apart two thirds of the way through…and we suddenly have a recruiting poster rhetoric…We finally see – and with a shock – what the last six lines really are: they are a propaganda argument – words like ‘vicious’ and ‘stupid’ would not seem to go too far – against a negotiated peace.”
Fussell also points out the symbolism in England long associated with the red poppy: homosexuality. In the Gilbert and Sullivan musical, Patience, which opened in 1881, he calls our attention to the following lyrics:
“…if you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand,
everyone will say,
As you walk your flowery way,
…what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be!”
One need not be a gay man, such as myself, to immediately understand the symbolic reference.
Fussell’s erudition as a scholar of English literature is never more evident than in his parsing of Two Loves, a poem written in 1894 by Lord Alfred Douglas, one time lover of Oscar Wilde. In a dream, the poet discovers in his garden a beautiful naked youth who has lips, ‘red like poppies’. Desperate to know who this lad is, the poet beseeches the youth to tell his name and finally the youth says, “I am the love that dare not speak its name.” This last being the polite way of saying ‘homosexuality’ in decades past.
So decades before the red poppy became the symbol of youthful death in battle, it had long been associated with homosexual love. Professor Fussell suggests the poet unconsciously expresses a certain homoeroticism in connection with his young friend in the poem.
“…Short days ago…We lived…Loved and were loved, and now we lie…”
Professor Fussell was a combat veteran himself. He was drafted into the US Army in 1943, at age 19. In October 1944 he landed in France, as part of the 103rd Infantry Division. He was wounded while fighting in France as a second lieutenant in the infantry, and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and Veterans Day in the United States take place on 11 November because this is the yearly anniversary of the armistice which ended the actual shooting in World War One. The peace talks and the Controversial Treaty of Versailles came months later.
The armistice went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year of Our Lord, One Thousand Nine Hundred Eighteen.
Ten million young men had perished in the war, never to write the poetry of their lives.