We have all heard it. We grew up hearing it. “In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow…” But how many of us have seen it?
John McRae was a Canadian Doctor stationed in the Ypres area during World War I. He worked at a medical station near a place we now call Essex Farm, in the Belgian province of Flanders. And as was popular during the time of World War I, he wrote poetry. Because dressing stations (or medical stations), often ended up with them being unable to treat many of the soldiers, they were next to cemeteries. After the war the Commonwealth war graves commission came up with rules to govern how these cemeteries were run. Which monuments were erected. The colour of the headstones. The rules for epitaphs. And so here we stood. In the footsteps of John McRae; looking out over the place that once was a battlefield, next to a cemetery of the fallen – some as young as 15 years old. And right next to the bunker that was used as a medical station, and the field that is used to bury the dead, is a field. With poppies. And I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a flower that possesses such power and meaning. A flower that can quickly stir the heart so deeply and so quickly. For decades I have been pinning a plastic flower over my heart, in honour of those who died. But here, in this cemetery, with these wild flowers, it suddenly took on a very different meaning.
So we began our day by honouring the dead, and hearing these words spoken out from the place they were written:
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 falling 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.