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(Red poppies)

In the warm early spring of 1915, bright red flowers began peeking through deeply scarred battlefields. It was at the height of WW1, and brutal clashes were tearing up fields and forests, destroying houses, trees, and plants, and wreaking havoc on the landscape across northern France and Flanders (northern Belgium).

The brilliantly colored flower, known variously as the Flanders poppy, corn poppy, red poppy, and corn rose, is actually classified as a weed. That makes sense, given its tenacious nature. Growing from the devastated landscape of the battlefields, the red poppy would become a powerful symbol of remembrance.

A Canadian brigade surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, spotted the poppies that spring, shortly after the Second Battle of Ypres. The devastation was horrendous after German forces had shocked Allied soldiers by firing more than 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas for the first time. Some 87,000 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing in that single battle (as well as 37,000 on the German side).

Struck by the sight of bright red blooms across the broken ground, McCrae wrote a poem, “In Flanders Fields,” in which he channeled the voices of the fallen soldiers buried there. McCrae himself died in January 1918.

Published in Punch magazine in late 1915, his poem has been used at countless memorial ceremonies for over 100 years.

After the war, a professor at the University of Georgia named Moina Michael read “In Flanders Field” in the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal. It so impressed her that she vowed to wear a red poppy in remembrance and came up with the idea of making and selling red silk poppies to raise money to support returning veterans.

A Frenchwoman named Anna Guérin also championed the symbolic power of the red poppy. Guérin organized French women, children, and veterans to make and sell artificial poppies as a way to fund the restoration of war-torn France. The following year, British Major George Howson set up the Poppy Factory in Richmond, England, in which disabled servicemen were employed to make the fabric and paper blooms.

In the United States, a tradition developed for many years to wear poppies on Memorial Day to commemorate the sacrifices of so many who have given their lives fighting for our country.

McCrae's poem is a powerful reminder of their tremendous sacrifice.

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae

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.

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