I am the grass.
Let me work.”
— Carl Sandburg, “Grass”
One hundred years have passed since the beginning of World War I. Britain is marking the anniversary by installing ceramic poppies in the dry moat around the Tower of London. Yes, that does make for quite a splash. They are calling it “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.” The installation began at the end of July; we saw a corner of it from the top of our London tour bus at the end of August. By the time the installation is compete on Nov. 11, there should be 888,246 poppies representing all the British and colonial military deaths of WW I.
I am old enough to remember when November 11 was referred to as Armistice Day in honor of the peace agreement which ended the war at 11:00 AM on 11/11/1918. In 1954 the holiday was changed to Veterans Day to honor all who have served in the US armed forces. People growing up in the British Commonwealth knew it as Remembrance Day or Poppy Day. Patriotic citizens would buy an artificial poppy for a donation in support of veterans’ services. I have no idea when I stopped seeing poppies in the US but I did encounter them again during November in Vancouver a few years ago. Clearly the poppy symbolism lives on in Britain.
Poppies were settled on as the appropriate symbol of soldiers’ deaths because of the poem which begins “In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses row on row.” It wasn’t until I began research for this post that I read that entire poem. I was quite surprised at what I found.
In Flanders Fields
by Major John McCrae, Canadian Army
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.
First, the context: My mind’s eye has always imagined these poppies shining beneath seemingly endless rows of white stone crosses as at Arlington National Cemetery, or even the Flanders Fields Cemetery today. But reading about the origin of the poem has changed that.
According to Wikipedia, Major McCrae (a military doctor in the Canadian Artillery) wrote the poem in the early days of the Second Battle of Ypres. His view of death would not have been white stone crosses but rustic wooden crosses in the farm field which became the temporary burial ground for casualties. Even though the charming rural landscape of Belgium had become a brown belt, a strip of murdered nature pocked with craters and trenches, the peculiar nature of the local poppy was to germinate in the spring if the ground was disturbed. So the poet would have seen poppies in the burial field. He just wouldn’t have seen them in the tidy memorial gardens we imagine.
But what about the content of the poem? Reading only the beginning lets you think this is a reminder that soldiers died and that nature will find a way to move on. Carl Sandburg did this succinctly with his poem “Grass.” Or you might even think these poppies are like the ‘flowers’ I grew up with in the timeless anti-war “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Not at all. This poem encourages us to “take up the quarrel with our foe” and receive the torch thrown to us from failing hands. Otherwise the Dead will not rest.
Isn’t this ironic? One of the most commonplace sentiments about war is “I don’t want my children to have to go to war.” But what passes for Patriotism here says to us essentially “Take up the sword. Finish the fight” Is it the need for vindication that supplants our better, more humane urge to keep war from happening? McCrae wrote his poem after burying a close friend who died in battle. His sense of loss was intense, poignant, and probably repeated to lesser degrees every day in the field hospital. He felt the loss of his generation and understandably did not want the sacrifice to be for nothing.
We need to hear this. But we also need to hear, loud and often, even this week, the question which Pete Seeger and Joe Hickson posed, “When will they ever learn?” Indeed, when will we ever learn?
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
6 November 2014