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Saturday, 9 November 2013

We shall not sleep - remembrance

During the First World War the battlegrounds were fought over so many times that in the end not a tree, not a hedge and not a house was left standing. In winter the land became a sea of mud and in summer a plain of colourless baked earth poisoned by chemicals and cordite, where hardly anything grew – except for the poppy.

This delicate and cheery flower provided the only colour in this blasted landscape and became a symbol for the soldiers.

Poppies have been used as a symbol of sleep and death since Ancient Greek times when the flowers were used as offerings to the dead. Also, the bright scarlet colour signified the promise of resurrection after death as well as the colour of blood. Sleep and eternal sleep are linked by the opiate qualities of certain poppies.

Many soldiers in the trenches wrote poems about the poppy, including Captain John McCrae, a Professor of Medicine in Montreal and medical officer with the First Canadian Army contingent in France in 1915.

At the second battle of Ypres in 1915, after witnessing the death of a friend, McCrae wrote in pencil on a page torn from his despatch book the following verses:

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 up high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ fields.

The poem was published in a December 1915 ‘Punch’. In January 1918 and now a colonel, McCrae was brought as a stretcher case to one of the big hospitals on the French coast. On his third evening there he was wheeled to the balcony of his room to look over the sea towards the cliffs of Dover.
His own verses were obviously on his mind for he turned to his doctor and said, ‘Tell them this, if ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep.’ John McCrae died that night. He was buried in a cemetery on rising ground above Wimereux, from where the cliffs of Dover are clearly visible on sunny days.

An American, Moina Michael, was moved by McCrae’s poem and wrote several verses in reply, ending with:

And now the torch and Poppy red
Wear in honour of the dead
Fear not that ye have died for naught
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders’ fields.

Sadly, the lessons of war still have not been learned. Yet, despite the many lands torn apart by war since the end of World War II, there has not been another global conflict. 
In November 1918 Miss Michael was presented with a small gift of money by some of the overseas war secretaries of the YMCA for whom she worked. She announced she was going to buy twenty-five red poppies with the money. She wore one herself and each secretary then bought one from her. This was probably the first ever group of people to sell poppies as a symbol of remembrance.

The French YMCA war secretary Madame Guerin, a milliner by trade, suggested that artificial poppies be made and sold to help ex-Servicemen and their dependants in need.

As a result, the first Poppy Day was held in UK on 11 November 1921. The poppies were obtained from a French organisation that used its profits to help children in war-devastated areas.

In 1922 Earl Haig set up the Legion Poppy Factory to give work to disabled ex-Service men. This built on an idea of Major George Howson who had formed The Disabled Society. He had been deeply moved by the plight of many of the disabled and therefore unemployable ex-Service men and thought that the production of artificial poppies would be something the disabled could undertake. Over eighty years later, the Legion’s Appeal raises about £18million every year.

Should you wear your poppy this year, you will be not only remembering but also helping improve people’s lives. In contributing to the Poppy Appeal, you are saying your own thanks to those who paid for our peace and freedom with their lives. The money from the appeal is used by the Legion to look after and provide for ex-Service men, women and their families in need. They adapted the famous phrase ‘For your tomorrow, we gave our today’ and say, ‘For their tomorrow, give on Poppy Day.’

The UK’s Remembrance Day also occurs in Australia and Canada, while in the US it’s called Veterans’ Day; it’s Armistice Day in France and Commonwealth countries, and Poppy Day in Malta and South Africa.

In the past, 11 November was the day of remembrance, but when it fell on a weekday it was felt that this interfered with business, so the actual ceremonies were shifted to the Sunday nearest to that date. However, in recent times many individuals still offer up two minutes of silence for the dead on the day, 11 November. That silence speaks volumes.

In November 2009 I blogged a short story (800 words), which may be of interest at this time -


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