Today it’s Remembrance Sunday, hence the paper poppies being sold everywhere. The poppy appeal was begun in America in 1920. It began when Moina Michael began wearing a poppy in 1918 as a sign of remembrance after being inspired by the famous poem In Flanders Fields.
The poem was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who was a surgeon for the Canadian artillery. He was also in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres, and it was here that he wrote the poem, after his friend L. Alexis Helmer was killed. He wrote the poem quickly, on 3rd May 1915, and initially threw it on the floor. During that time, local papers on the home front would often publish war poems. In Flanders Fields was picked up by someone off the floor who then sent it to the Spectator who refused to print it because it wasn’t patriotic enough. So Punch published it instead.
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 yo a war cemurs to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
And this is where he wrote it, at the Essex Farm cemetery.
This was at the time a thriving field hospital. Strange to imagine. Beside it lies a cemetery.
Cemeteries often turned up beside field hospitals, as of course, there had to be a place were the bodies were lain. So, if you ever stumble across a war cemetery in France or Belgium, it was probably also once the site of a field hospital.
One of the most iconic headstones of the Essex Farm cemetery is that of rifleman Valentine Strudwick, who was only 15 when he signed up to war. Of course, he lied to the war office, and was able to do so because he was a well-built farm-hand.
If you go to the cemetery now, you’ll see bullet marks on some of the headstones, which is because there was extensive fighting here only 20 odd years later during the Second World War.
John McCrae himself also died at war on January 28th 1918, from pneumonia and meningitis. But his memory lives on.