SLOAN COLUMN: This Memorial Day, don’t forget to remember
Many communities around the nation, including Florence and others around the Pee Dee, will not be holding annual Memorial Day ceremonies on Monday. You can chalk it up as the latest victim of the coronavirus.
While there will be no public gatherings, speeches, wreath layings, or 21-gun salutes, we should not - we must not – forget the purpose for this holiday. Too many have paid too great a price in the name of freedom.
Something else you will not see this Memorial Day are American Legion members selling poppies. The bright red flowers have been a symbol of remembrance of those brave men and women in uniform who have died while serving our nation since the years following World War I.
It was a poem written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian surgeon who served with the Allied forces, that helped make the connection between poppies and Memorial Day.
With no public ceremonies planned for Memorial Day, it seems like the perfect time to share story of McCrae, his poem and the significance of the poppies.
Following is an abridged version of the story found on the American Legion web site:
From 1914 to 1918, World War I took a greater human toll than any previous conflict, with some 8.5 million soldiers dead of battlefield injuries or disease. Across northern France and Flanders (northern Belgium), the brutal clashes between Allied and Central Powers soldiers tore up fields and forests, tearing up trees and plants and wreaking havoc on the soil beneath. But in the warm early spring of 1915, bright red flowers began peeking through the battle-scarred land.
Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian who served as a brigade surgeon for an Allied artillery unit, spotted a cluster of poppies that spring, shortly after the Second Battle of Ypres. McCrae tended to the wounded and got a firsthand look at the carnage of that clash. Some 87,000 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing in the battle. A friend of McCrae’s, Lt. Alexis Helmer, was among the dead.
Struck by the sight of bright red blooms on broken ground, McCrae wrote a poem, “In Flanders Fields,” in which he channeled the voice of the fallen soldiers buried under those hardy poppies. He gave his poem a very simple title: “In Flanders Fields.”
McCrae’s poem was published in Punch magazine in late 1915. It gained quick popularity and was recited at countless memorial ceremonies. Its fame had spread far and wide by the time McCrae himself died, from pneumonia and meningitis, in January 1918.
A woman named Moina Michael read “In Flanders Field” in the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal, just two days before the armistice. Inspired by McCrae’s verses, Michael wrote her own poem in response, which she called “We Shall Keep Faith.”
As a sign of this faith, and a remembrance of the sacrifices of Flanders Field, Michael vowed to always wear a red poppy; she found an initial batch of fabric blooms for herself and her colleagues at a department store. After the war ended, she returned to the university town of Athens, and came up with the idea of making and selling red silk poppies to raise money to support returning veterans.
Michael’s campaign to create a national symbol for remembrance—a poppy in the colors of the Allied nations’ flags entwined around a victory torch - didn’t get very far at first. But in mid-1920, she managed to get Georgia’s branch of the American Legion, a veteran’s group, to adopt the poppy (minus the torch) as its symbol. Soon after that, the National American Legion voted to use the poppy as the official U.S. national emblem of remembrance.
The American Legion asked Congress to designate the Friday before Memorial Day as National Poppy Day.
Take just a few moments on this extended weekend to remember those valiant souls who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.