My son and I were watching an English Premier League soccer match on TV last Saturday morning when he asked, “Dad, why are the coaches and players wearing red flowers on their clothes?”
I looked closer and saw that the coaches and players were indeed sporting red poppy pins. I fondly recalled that when I was my son’s age, the American Legion came door to door selling poppy pins to benefit wounded veterans. Every year around November 11th, it seemed like everyone my parents’ age wore the little red flowers in remembrance of the sacrifices of our veterans.
I told my son, “The flowers are red poppies, worn to commemorate the Armistice that ended World War One in 1918 and to honor veterans everywhere.”
I was met by a blank stare.
I said, “You know… the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The Armistice that ended ‘the war to end all wars.” Sensing no recognition, I added, “In Flanders Field the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row…”
My voice tailed off as my son continued to look at me as if I were speaking Martian.
It’s no wonder my son didn’t know what I was talking about. Few people in America today wear the red poppies to honor those who died in World War One and in the line of duty since then. In fact, many people today don’t even know why we celebrate Armistice Day, or Veterans Day as it is now called in the U.S.
It was time for me to tell my son the story behind the little red poppies. I turned off the soccer match and explained to my son why the poppy has long been associated with the Armistice and honoring veterans.
During World War One, in Flanders in Belgium, Picardy in northeast France, and around Gallipoli in Turkey, the combatants fought each other in appalling conditions. Each side developed new and terrible weapons. The soldiers sought safety and protection from these weapons by digging trenches that extended for miles across the bombed out and shell torn landscape. Amidst all the death and destruction, nature somehow managed to thrive. Soldiers were amazed to hear the calls of larks flying overhead, even during the fury of an artillery barrage. Little red poppies germinated in the soil upturned by exploding shells, and bloomed in the desolation of No-Man’s Land.
The poppies soon became a source of inspiration to the weary and fearful soldiers. For them, the little red flowers symbolized the hope and innocence of a better world, and honored the sacrifices of their fallen comrades, whose spilled blood was represented in the color of the poppies.
One soldier who found inspiration in the red poppies was Major John McCrae, a Canadian doctor and artillery officer. McCrae was serving as a surgeon north of the Belgian town of Ypres in the spring of 1915 during one of the most horrific battles of the war. McCrae had to treat soldiers wounded by artillery shells and machine guns, as well as those maimed by a new and awful weapon, poisonous gas. After learning of the death of a close friend during the battle, Major McCrae sat disconsolately in a concrete bunker that served as an advanced dressing station, waiting for the next transport of wounded soldiers to be brought up from the front lines. While waiting, he was moved by the vibrant red poppies growing on the shattered ground around him, and penned perhaps the most famous poem of the war:
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.
Upon reciting this poem to my son, I saw a spark in his eyes. “That’s very moving,” he said. “Who started the tradition of wearing red poppies?”
With the help of the Internet, we discovered that the tradition was begun by an American woman named Moina Michael, who had read McCrae’s poem and started wearing poppies two days before the Armistice was signed that ended the war on November 11, 1918, at 11:00 a.m. (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month). She distributed poppies to veterans at the New York YMCA where she worked, and the practice caught on. The poppy was adopted as a symbol by the American Legion in 1921, and became associated with honoring our veterans after President Eisenhower signed a law in 1954 that changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day.
My son said, “It’s a shame few people wear the red poppies any more. It’s a nice tradition.”
We agreed that I would try to find some red poppy pins for our family to wear for this year’s Veterans Day. Who knows? Maybe, with others’ help, we can revive a tradition that began with John McCrae, Moina Michael, and veterans’ groups everywhere. And if others ask us why we’re wearing red flowers on our clothes this November 11th, we can introduce them to the tradition by telling them the story of the little red poppy.