War history: It’s where the poppies blow

Glorious poppies at the Aisne valley in north-eastern France, scene of bitter fighting during the Fi

Glorious poppies at the Aisne valley in north-eastern France, scene of bitter fighting during the First World War. Photograph: Simon Gregor - Credit: Archant

A simple wild flower that means so much... Mike Peters, Galloway Travel’s resident military historian, talks about how the red poppy became an iconic symbol of remembrance.

Soldier and poet John McCrae, who wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields.

Soldier and poet John McCrae, who wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields. - Credit: Archant

Today the humble poppy is widely recognised as an international symbol of remembrance. Soldiers first associated the blood-coloured flower with war when they saw it in huge numbers, covering the battle-scarred fields of Flanders and growing on broken ground, which is of course where poppies grow best.

Sadly, in recent times the poppy has been at the centre of a very different kind of battle: the political debate that surrounds remembrance, and the symbolism of the poppy itself.

We have already had the perennial debate about the futility or glorification of war and even whether or not we should be wearing poppies. Last week there was a particularly provocative article in which a journalist suggested that the breath-taking Tower of London poppy display was politically motivated and not, as intended, a symbol of mass remembrance.

However, for most of us, the poppy remains a simple symbol that we are content to wear as a voluntary act of remembrance.

I wonder how many people know the true origin of this custom.

The story begins at Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station, the birthplace of one of the most famous of war poems.

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In Flanders Fields was inspired by the death of a Canadian officer close to the dressing station. Many readers will be familiar with the words as it is frequently recited in schools and at church services on or around Remembrance Day.

The poet who penned these emotive lines served as a medical officer at Essex Farm. The ADS looked very different to the concrete bunker that battlefield tourists see today. The hardened shelter was constructed later, in preparation for the Third Battle of Ypres in the summer of 1917.

In 1915, when the poem was written, the ADS was a far more temporary and vulnerable affair: a dugout built into the side of the canal. Casualties were brought back from the front line, often under shellfire, via an adjacent bridge known as Number 4 Bridge.

In the spring of 1915 Canadian medical staff manned Essex Farm ADS; they were to witness the Second Battle of Ypres and the casualties of a new and horrific form of warfare.

On April 22, 1915, the Canadians and colonial French troops would bear the brunt of the German army’s first large-scale use of chlorine gas on the Western Front. Among the Canadian doctors treating the casualties was Colonel John McCrae.

Although he was no stranger to war, having served in the artillery during the Boer War, the gas attack was nevertheless a shocking development for John McCrae.

Just two days after the attack he wrote home, describing what he had seen, including hundreds of “asphyxiated French soldiers” and endless streams of civilian refugees fleeing the new terror weapon.

He later wrote of a gaping hole of 1,200 to 1,500 yards in the allied line created by the gas attack. “For 36 hours there was not an infantryman between the enemy and us. God knows why the Germans did not put in a big force to eat us up. We really expected to die.”

By April 25 the original Canadian force had been reduced ? by artillery attacks, gas and sniping ? from 10,000 men capable of fighting to 4,000 men, yet still they tenaciously held their ground.

John McCrae witnessed the stream of casualties that passed through Essex Farm but was to be affected more personally on May 2, 1915.

News reached him that friend and protégé Lieut Alexis Helmer had been blasted to pieces by an eight-inch Howitzer shell. It was this experience that prompted McCrae to write these poignant words:

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.

The simple poem was an almost overnight success after publication in Punch magazine in December, 1915.

Towards the end of the war an American lady called Moira Michael wrote a poem in response, entitled We Shall Keep the Faith. She exhorted readers to wear a poppy in honour of the dead. The secretary of the French YMCA, Madame Guerin, grasped this idea; she began selling artificial poppies to raise funds for soldiers and their families.

In the UK the concept was taken on by the Earl Haig fund and adopted by the newly formed British Legion as a symbol of remembrance of the dead and the missing, and as a means of raising funds for wounded and hard-pressed soldiers after the war. The first poppy day was held on November 11, 1921.

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