In the World War I battlefields of France, poppies grew wild amid the ravaged landscape of Flanders Field. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a doctor with Canadian forces serving in Belgium, who after witnessing the death of his friend, looked out upon the battlefield and was taken aback at the sight of all the bright red poppies growing in the midst of the carnage. How could such a pretty little flower grow wild while surrounded by such death and destruction? It turned out that the overturned soil of the battlefield enabled the poppy seeds to be covered, thus allowing them to flourish and grow amidst the devastation of war.
As a result, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae put pencil to paper and penned the poem “We Shall Not Sleep,” which later became more widely known as “In Flanders Field”.
In Flanders Fields
(originally entitled “We Shall Not Sleep”)
John McCrae, 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.
Unfortunately, John McCrae was not to see the end of the War. He was wounded in May 1918, and while a patient in his own hospital near the French coast, he died three days later.
The idea for a Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy came to Miss Moina Michael of Georgia while she was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries' headquarters on a Saturday morning, two days before the Armistice was declared on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. On passing her desk, a young soldier left a copy of the November Ladies Home Journal on Moina's desk. Moina found a few moments to read the magazine and came across a page which carried a vivid color illustration for the poem "We Shall Not Sleep" (later named "In Flanders Fields") by the Canadian Army doctor John McCrae.
Moina was transfixed by the last verse - "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." She then conceived of an idea and started the practice of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States was the first veterans’ organization to promote a nationally organized campaign for the annual distribution of poppies assembled by American disabled and needy veterans. In 1924, the VFW patented the name "Buddy Poppy" for their version of the artificial flower. Buddy Poppy proceeds represent no profit to any VFW unit. All the money contributed by the public for Buddy Poppies is used in the cause of veteran’s welfare, or for the wellbeing of their needy dependents and the orphans of veterans.
Following the 1924 sale, the VFW believed it would stimulate local sales if the poppies they used were assembled by disabled veterans in hospitals within their own jurisdiction. The 1924 encampment of the VFW at Atlantic City granted this privilege, under the provision that all poppies would be produced according to specifications set forth by the National Buddy Poppy Committee, and that all poppies would be assembled by disabled veterans in government hospitals and by needy veterans in workshops supervised by the VFW.
Around the same year, the American Legion Auxiliary also adopted the poppy as the organization's memorial flower and pledged its use to benefit our servicemen and their families. Today, the poppy continues to provide a financial and therapeutic benefit to those hospitalized and disabled veterans who construct them, as well as benefiting thousands of other veterans and their families.
As you are standing on Cross Bay Boulevard watching the Broad Channel Memorial Day Parade this Sunday afternoon and a veteran hands you a "Buddy Poppy," take some time to reflect on the history of this practice which, unfortunately, is all too often forgotten by many of us. The veteran is symbolically passing a torch (in the form of a red poppy ) for you to wear and display as a means of "keeping faith with" (remembering and honoring) those veterans who have died in service to all the people of this great nation on this special day.
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