Memorial Day is a solemn day of remembrance for all those who have given their lives serving in America’s armed forces. Originally called decoration day, its origins can be traced back to May 5, 1868, nearly three years following the end of the Civil War, when the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) decorated the graves of the war dead with flowers. Today, nothing has come to symbolize Memorial Day more than the red poppy.
This Memorial Day, we will 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 may drop a few coins 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 as we go about our busy day of shopping, texting or buying an overpriced cup of coffee at the local doughnut shop.
But what do you know about the red poppy?
Connecting the visual image of the red poppy with the sacrifice made by our
veterans has been a major goal of the American Legion Auxiliary Poppy Program since 1921. On Memorial Day, millions of red crepe poppies, handmade by disabled American Veterans as part of the rehabilitation process, are passed out across this country in exchange for donations that go directly to disabled and hospitalized veterans throughout the nation.
But why the red poppy?
Following the second battle of Ypres in World War I, Lt. Colonel John McCrea penned a poem entitled “In Flanders Fields” 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 the spot 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 those who served and died.
According to Moina, a soldier gave her a copy of a Ladies’ Home Journal magazine which described the battle of Ypres and the striking red poppies blooming among the rows of white crosses on the deserted battlefields of northern France and western Belgium. As she read further, she saw the poem “We Shall Not Sleep” written by Col. McCrea, which was later renamed “In Flanders Fields”. Moina reports that she was particularly affected by the last stanza of McCrea’s work.
“This was, for me, a full spiritual experience," Moina wrote in her memoirs. “It seemed as though the silent voices again were vocal, whispering, in sighs of anxiety unto anguish…I pledged to KEEP THE FAITH and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of ‘keeping the faith with all who died.’”
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.
This weekend, when we drop those coins into the can at a table manned by one of our veterans, give the proper respect to the paper red poppy that we are handed. Before you toss it to the side, remember that it was made by a disabled veteran as part of his or her battle to recover from an injury in service to America.
Also, give some thought to what this simple flower symbolizes and the millions of Americans who have served and continue to serve this country so that we may enjoy the freedoms and liberties that we often take for granted. Memorial Day is their day. Remember them and honor them.
They are the best of America.
Below are the poems written by Lt. Col. McCrea and Moina Michael and I encourage you to read them and reflect upon the red poppy and the true reason for Memorial Day.
In Flanders Fields
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.
“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 luster 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 you wrought In Flanders fields.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.