“In Flanders Fields”

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Being of mixed Scots-English ancestry I consider myself a rather selective Anglophile. Unlike a heck of a lot of Americans, I’m not enamored with every aspect of the British monarchy. However, I will use this blog and the next to address a couple of the things about England that do resonate with me.

As someone interested in military and social history I have paid attention to the United Kingdom’s observance of the centenary of the First World War. This frightful human event came to be called the “Great War,” not because it was wonderful, but because of its magnitude. The Great War is considered a lot more seriously in Europe than in the United States. This is in part because the U.S. didn’t enter the war until just 19 months prior to its conclusion. Here’s another way of looking at the impact of World War One: for every casualty suffered by the United States during it, the United Kingdom and its colonies lost perhaps thirty-four men.

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“In Flanders Fields” is perhaps the most emblematic First World War poem in English. Canadian soldier, physician and poet Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote it in May 1915, after he presided over the funeral of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer. Apparently its inspiration came from McCrae’s observation that poppies often bloomed around soldiers’ graves soon after their interment. “In Flanders Fields” was first published in the December 8, 1915 issue of the magazine Punch.

“In Flanders Fields” is one of the most quoted poems to come out of the war. As a result of its immediate popularity, parts of the poem were used in propaganda efforts and appeals to raise recruits and to finance the conflict by selling war bonds. Its references to the red poppies established the Remembrance Poppy as an internationally recognized memorial symbol for soldiers who have died in conflict.

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“In Flanders fields the poppies grow
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 images in this blog are of “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.” This work of installation art by Paul Cummins was placed in the Tower of London’s moat between July and November 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Each of its handmade ceramic red poppies represents one British or Colonial serviceman killed in the war. The work’s title came from the first line of a poem by an unknown World War I soldier.]

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