At 11:00am, on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the insanity of the First World War came to an end. Though the United States holiday was renamed to Veterans Day after World War II, it is still known as Armistice Day in France and Belgium. It is known as the Day of Peace in Flanders Field, where many of the dead from the western front are buried and one of the most famous poems of this war or any war was written.
Poppies are an annual, summer-blooming wildflower whose seeds are carried on the wind. They can lie dormant for a long time but will bloom if the earth is disturbed – as it was, of course, during the years of trench warfare. In many parts of the line, in the summers of 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918, the little poppies shone as the only symbol of life amid the devastation of no-mans land.
In May, 1915, Major John McCrae, a Canadian military doctor and artillery commander, noticed the poppies growing in the disturbed ground between the graves that surrounded his artillery position near Ypres. When the chaplain was called away, McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for a friend. We think he began his famous poem that evening.
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.
Even more than McCrae’s poem, Armistice Day / Veterans’ Day brings to mind a song by the Scottish musician, Andy Stewart. His song, “Young Jimmy in Flanders,” commemorates his uncle James who served as a piper during the war, and miraculously survived. More than any other picture or poem or story, this ballad evokes for me the terrible sadness and anger at this conflict where boys playing bagpipes led troops against machine guns and poison gas:
He played his pipes to battle,
and the laddies died like cattle,
and the brandy was drunk in Whitehall,
a million miles away.
This song is recorded on Stewart’s fine album, “Fire in the Glen,” 1991.