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.
John McCrae (Written May 3, 1915)
Why do red poppies grow over the graves of soldiers on Flanders Field? I found out it was due to the damage done to the landscape in Flanders during a deadly battle, which greatly increased the lime content in the surface soil, leaving the poppy as one of the few plants able to grow in the region. It was during WWI when the German army launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of war. They used chlorine gas but were unable to break through the Canadian line, which held for over two weeks.
John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer during the battle of Flanders, wrote these words for the burial of a friend, Alexis Helmer, who died in this battle, the year was 1915. McCrae was not satisfied with the poem and after the service he threw it away. A friend retrieved it and convinced him send it in for publication.
Flanders Fields is one of the most popular poems associated with Memorial Day. The point of view is that of the dead, yet it encourages the living to live on, “to you from failing hands we throw the torch.”
“In May 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, claimed that May 30 should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the recently ended Civil War. On Decoration Day, as it was first known, Americans should lay flowers and decorate the graves of the war dead ‘whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.’ Logan chose May 30 because it was a rare day that didn’t fall on the anniversary of a Civil War battle, though some historians believe the date was selected to ensure that flowers across the country would be in full bloom,” Barbara Maranzani.
Lincoln urged the survivors, “to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
The reality is undeniable, we stand on the graves of those who have gone before us, the torch now in our hands, and we are encouraged to “hold it high.” I’m reminded of a memorial day long ago, when our children were young, docked around the small kitchen table, we were enjoying ice cream before bed.
Larry pulls a folded paper out of his back pocket, the edges are worn, the paper faded, as if he’s carried this article for a long time. He carefully opens the thin paper and starts to read out loud to the children. His voice is thick with emotion as he reads the words of a veteran, from a letter to his family, describing the death of his only brother, during one of the last battles of the civil war.
I’m captured by the sound of Larry’s voice, the words of grief, honor, sacrifice. It is a touching tribute. Then it happens. His voice cracks, I look up, his eyes are moist. He stops reading, bows his head, unable to go on. The children are immobilized by the rare site of their father weeping (It will happen again on 9/11). I reach for the article, it takes me a minute to find his place, as I finish the words of a most power memorial day story I am aware that Larry has given our children a rare gift. One I hope they will never forget.
I’ve learned that the American flag should be hung at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day, then raised to the top of the staff. All Americans are encouraged to pause for a national moment of remembrance at 3 p.m. local time. Let me remember to pause and reflect on the enormity of the sacrifice our veterans have made for our freedom.
“Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invoked God’s aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.” Abraham Lincoln
There is an ancient story in which Rabbi Joshua is asked by a prospective convert to Judaism to teach him the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg, he replies, “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary.”
Jesus teaches this same lesson in positive form, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Either way this is the essence of all the major religions but we continue to fight over doctrine, scripture, leadership, land, politics, even how to pray.
“We stand on sacred ground, watch where the poppies grow, short are our days to live, to feel the dawn, to watch the sunset glow.” [adapted Flanders Field, McCrae]