Several times a year we see veterans sitting outside of grocery stores, malls or in parks collecting donations for the American Legion Chapters that provide needed services to our vets and their families. We drop a few dollars into the container and for that donation we receive a red poppy that we mindlessly throw into our car or jam into our pocket without giving it a second thought while we go about our busy day of shopping, texting or buying an overpriced cup of coffee at the local doughnut shop. But why are we given this red poppy and what does it mean?
In 1865 after the war between the states, several civic and religious organizations started the formal practice of putting flags and other symbols on the graves of the fallen soldiers. These decorations led to a formal declaration of “Decoration Day” and later renamed to Memorial Day, a time set aside to honor our war dead.
So how has Memorial Day and the red poppy become intertwined?
Following the second battle of Ypres in World War I, Lt. Colonel John McCrea penned a poem entitled “In Flanders Field” which popularized the wearing of the red poppy as a symbol of our fallen military heroes. The opening line of the poem refers to the site of the thousands of crosses laid out to mark where so many soldiers died for their countries. Among these crosses grew the red poppy, a resilient flower that could lie dormant for years and then reappear in great numbers in fields which appeared bare just years before.
For Lt. Col. McCrea, the poppy signified the bravery of military heroes who would appear in great numbers to assist and fight with their comrades against the oppression and tyranny of the enemy during ‘the war to end all wars’ then disappearing and lying dormant until the call came again.
In 1918, humanitarian Moina Michael wrote a poem as a tribute to McCrea’s accounting of the deaths on Flanders Field and as a result the poppy became the official symbol for the remembrance of our fallen heroes. Today, the American Legion continues to use the poppy as a thank you for those who donate and support the needs of our disabled veterans.
Below are those poems written by Lt. Col. McCrea and Moina Michael and I encourage you to read them and think about their meaning.
So next time we drop a few cents into that can at a table manned by one of our veterans, think about the poppy that we are handed. Think about what this simple flower symbolizes and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost defending the freedoms that we cherish.
Most of all, remember all those who have paid the ultimate price to keep our country free on this very special holiday, Memorial Day 2017.
In Flander’s Field by Lt. Col. John McCrae, 1915
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 is buried in Wimereux, France after succumbing to pneumonia in 1918.
“We Shall Keep the Faith” By Moina Michael
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 field
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 you wrought In Flanders field