12 November 2016

Veterans Day Poppies

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae,
May 1915

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.

We Shall Keep the Faith
by Monia Michael,
9 November 1918

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

The origin of the red Flanders poppy as a modern-day symbol of Remembrance was the inspiration of an American woman, Miss Moina Michael.

Nowadays, poppies still bloom on the old 1914-1918 battlefields of northern France and Belgium. However, visitors
expecting to see fields of poppies will quite likely be disappointed. The idea of fields full of poppies is possibly a misconstrued image from the lines of John McCrae's poem "In Flanders fields the poppies blow." More likely the line refers to clusters of poppies growing in the fields and especially around the graves in the disturbed ground of the poem. Due to the nature of farming today the poppies blooming in the battlefield areas do tend to be found in small clusters rather than in whole fields. The affects of the weather can also provide a better show of flowering poppies in one year more than another.

During the early days of the Second Battle of Ypres, a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2 May 1915 in the gun positions near Ypres. An exploding German artillery shell landed near him. He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as a friend of his, the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae.

As the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Alexis because the chaplain had been called away somewhere else on duty that evening. It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, John began the draft for his now famous poem In Flanders Fields.

During 1915 John McCrae sent the poem to The Spectator magazine. It was not published and was returned to him. It was, however, published in Punch magazine on 8th December 1915.

It was on a Saturday morning, 9 November 1918, two days before the Armistice was declared at 11 o'clock on 11 November 1918. Moina Belle Michael was on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries' headquarters in New York. She was working in the “Gemot” in Hamilton Hall. This was a reading room and a place where U.S. servicemen would often gather with friends and family to say their goodbyes before they went on overseas service.

On that day, Hamilton Hall and the “Gemot” were busy with people coming and going. The Twenty-fifth Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries was in progress at the headquarters. During the first part of the morning as a young soldier passed by Moina's desk, he left a copy of the latest November edition of the Ladies Home Journal on the desk.

At about 10.30am Moina found a few moments to herself and browsed through the magazine. In it she came across a page which carried a vivid color illustration with the poem entitled We Shall Not Sleep. This was an alternative name sometimes used for John McCrae's poem, which was also called In Flanders Fields. Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae had died of pneumonia several months earlier on 28 January 1918.

Moina had come across the poem before, but reading it on this occasion, she found herself transfixed by the last verse. At that moment, Moina made a personal pledge to “keep the faith.” She vowed always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance. It would become an emblem for “keeping the faith with all who died." Compelled to make a note of this pledge, she scribbled down a response on the back of a used envelope. She titled her poem We Shall Keep the Faith.

Three men attending the conference then arrived at Moina's desk. On behalf of the delegates, they asked her to accept a check for 10 dollars, in appreciation of the effort she had made to brighten up the place with flowers at her own expense.

She was touched by the gesture and replied that she would buy twenty-five red poppies with the money. She showed them the illustration for John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields in the Ladies Home Journal, together with her response to it We Shall Keep the Faith. The delegates took both poems back into the Conference.

After searching the shops for some time that day, Moina found one large and twenty-four small artificial red silk poppies in Wanamaker's department store. When she returned to duty at the YMCA Headquarters later that evening, the delegates from the Conference crowded round her asking for poppies to wear. Keeping one poppy for her coat collar, she gave out the rest of the poppies to the enthusiastic delegates.

According to Moina, this was the first group-effort asking for poppies to wear in memory of “all who died in Flanders Fields.” Since this group had given her the money with which to buy them, she considered that she made the first sale of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy on 9 November 1918.

By March 1919, Moina Michael had moved back to Georgia to take up her place at the University of Georgia. During the summer months of 1919, she taught a class of disabled servicemen. There were several hundred ex-servicemen in rehabilitation at the University of Georgia. Learning about their needs first-hand gave her the impetus to widen the scope of the Memorial Poppy idea. She thought it could be developed so that it could be used to help all servicemen who needed help for themselves and for their dependents.

In 1919, the American Legion was founded as an organization by veterans of the United States armed forces to support those who had served in wartime in Europe during the First World War.

In August 1920, Moina discovered by chance that the Georgia Department of the American Legion was to convene on the 20th of that month in Atlanta. Prior to the convention, she searched out the delegates, and the Navy representative promised to present her case for the Memorial Poppy to the convention.

The Georgia Convention subsequently adopted the Memorial Poppy but omitted the Torch symbol. The Convention also agreed to endorse the movement to have the Poppy adopted by the National American Legion and resolved to urge each member of the American Legion in Georgia to wear a red poppy annually on 11 November.

One month later, on 29 September 1920, the National American Legion convened in Cleveland. The Convention agreed on the use of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy as the United States' national emblem of Remembrance.

Today, due to The Great War's spawning of WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam Conflict, and the Bosnian War, 11 November is called Veterans Day. Raymond Weeks of Birmingham, Alabama, organized a Veterans Day parade for that city on November 11, 1947, to honor all of America's Veterans for their loyal service. Later, U.S. Representative Edward H. Rees of Kansas proposed legislation changing the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day to honor all who have served in America’s Armed Forces.

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