In 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote the poem, “In Flanders Fields”.
Its opening lines refer to the fields of poppies that grew among the soldiers’ graves in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium.
In 1918, inspired by the poem, YWCA worker Moina Michael attended a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries’ conference wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed more to others present. In 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance in the U.S.
“In Flanders Fields” is a rondeau, a form fixe of medieval and Renaissance French poetry that was often set to music between the late 13th and the 15th centuries. (But not be confused with the rondo, a classical music form.)
It is structured around a fixed pattern of repetition involving a refrain, though today it is used both in a wider sense with older variants of the form – which are sometimes distinguished as the triolet and rondel. To be stricter, it refers to a 15-line variant which developed from these forms in the 15th and 16th centuries, and which McCrae used.
The poem’s immediate popularity led to it being used to recruit soldiers and raise money selling war bonds, and the reference to the red poppies resulted in the “remembrance poppy” becoming one of the world’s most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict.
The poem and poppy are prominent Remembrance Day symbols throughout the Commonwealth of Nations, particularly in Canada, where “In Flanders Fields” is one of the nation’s best-known literary works. The poem is also widely known in the United States, where it is associated with Veterans Day and Memorial Day (formerly Decoration Day).
|Silk Remembrance Day poppy worn on clothing|
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.
Other poems commemorating Memorial Day include: