On a blue-sky May day while researching a guidebook on Belgium, I traveled to a small town called Ieper, better known as Ypres, 75 miles west of Brussels. Those poppy-strewn Flemish flatlands have been the site of recorded battles from the time of Julius Caesar to "The War to End All Wars," what we now call World War I.
Ypres was a quiet convent town but became ground zero as the site of a terrible WWI slaughter; almost half a million European, British, and British Commonwealth soldiers are buried near there. The town has been rebuilt in medieval style, brick by brick, and today is a major touring site for people visiting the nearby trenches, the vast cemeteries and the Flanders Fields museum.
I had studied the haunting short poem "In Flanders Fields," in high school and later it became a part of my curriculum the year I taught English literature. I thought it was a beautiful elegy. But since my trip to those very fields I cannot spend a Veterans Day without remembering the lines, and the enormous sacrifices of war it evokes.
Colonel John McCrae, who wrote the poem, was a Canadian field surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade in Belgium. He had served in South Africa and taught at McGill University. Of the suffering at the battle of Ypres he wrote: "Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."
On May 2, 1915, his young friend and former student, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was killed by an exploding shell. McCrae performed the funeral ceremony and the next day, on the back of an ambulance, honored his friend's sacrifice by scribbling fifteen lines. Watching him compose them, Sergeant-major Cyril Allinson reported: "His face was very tired but calm as he wrote. He looked around from time to time, his eye straying to Helmer's grave ... It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene."
McCrae threw the little poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it, and Punch published it on December 8, 1915. Almost a century later, it still resonates with images of life and death, hope and sorrow. Most vividly, the red poppies blooming wild every spring symbolize both joy and bloodshed.
"In Flanders Fields" is among the most memorable war poems ever. It is especially powerful when you read it slowly aloud. On Veterans Day, 2008, the poignant words can help us to honor those from wars past, and the brave men and women sacrificing for us right now in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Flanders Fields
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.