The Story of the Poppy

Poppy Day

Poppy Day, when the South African Legion holds a street collection to gather funds to assist in the welfare work among military veterans, takes place on the Saturday nearest to Remembrance Day.

When one buys a poppy on Poppy Day one pays tribute to those who died, and one is helping those who are left and bear the scars of war.

The Red Poppy’s story

During the First World War (1914–1918) much of the fighting took place in Western Europe, mainly in France and Belgium. The rolling plains of the Somme in France and around Ypres in Belgium was transformed into a network of dug trenches and fortifications as two massive armies stood in opposition to one another. This stunning countryside was blasted, bombed with such ferocity that it became a muddy, treeless barren landscape – a living hell.

Only one plant survived – Bright red Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas) with their delicate but resilient flowers – and they flourished in their thousands amid the mud and shattered earth.

In May 1915, a Canadian doctor, Lt Col John McCrae was so inspired by the sight of poppies growing from the rapidly interned soldiers graves amid all the destruction that he penned his famous poem called ‘In Flanders Fields’. Initially crumpling up the poem and throwing it away, his men found it and urged him to send it to newspaper and magazine publishers, the rest is a remarkable twist of history.

Once published in public domain John McCrae’s poem in turn inspired an American academic, Moina Michael to make and sell red silk poppies which were then brought to England to raise funds and help returning veterans and their families with employment, medical aid, housing etc. The (Royal) British Legion, ordered millions of the poppies which were sold during the very first armistice day commemorations on 11 November. This practice was also adopted by the Legion family the world over, including The South African Legion, and continues to this day.

The Poem

IN FLANDERS FIELDS by Lt Col 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.

Lt Col John McCrae unfortunately did not survive the war, on January 28, 1918, while still commanding No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne, McCrae died of pneumonia. He was buried the following day in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of Wimereux Cemetery, with full military honours.

by Lt Col McCrae, MD:
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 Flanders Fields” is a war poem in the form of a rondeau, written during the First World War by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. He was inspired to write it on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.”

In Flanders Fields” was first published on December 8 of that year in the London-based magazine Punch.

It is one of the most popular and most quoted poems from the war. As a result of its immediate popularity, parts of the poem were used in propaganda efforts and appeals to recruit soldiers and raise money selling war bonds.

Its references to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers 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.

McCrae was moved to the medical corps and stationed in Boulogne, France, in June 1915 where he was named lieutenant-colonel in charge of medicine at the Number 3 Canadian General Hospital.

He was promoted to the acting rank of Colonel on January 13, 1918, and named Consulting Physician to the British Armies in France.

The years of war had worn McCrae down, however. He contracted pneumonia that same day, and later came down with cerebral meningitis.

On January 28, he died at the military hospital in Wimereux and was buried there with full military honours.

 

An Afrikaans translation:

In Vlaandere se Velde

In Vlaand’re wieg papawers sag
Tussen kruise, grag op grag,
As bakens; en deur dit alles deur
Die lewerikke tjilpend in dapper vlug,
Skaars hoorbaar bo die grofgeskut van bomme.Ons is die Dooies.
Dae gelede het ons geleef
die dagbreek en sonsondergloed beleef. Was bemind en was verlief,
nou lê ons in Vlaandere se velde.Veg voort my Kind met alle mag;
neem uit my hand die lig,
met krag moet jul die fakkel dra, met eer. Wie durf Ons dood verloën, onteer –
ons sal steeds dwaal, ons sal nie slaap, solank papawers groei in Vlaandere se velde.

Translated into Afrikaans by Hendrik Neethling and Walter E. Vice as a collaboration on behalf of the Legion, as arranged and ready by Karen Dickens at the Centenary Service of the South Africans at the Somme and the Battle of Delville Wood, held at Thiepval Memorial in France on 10th July 2016


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