11 novembre: Une histoire de coquelicots (In Flanders fields the poppies blow)

Canadian stretcher bearers in Flanders fields (1915)
Canadian War Department poster (painting by Frank Lucien Nicolet, 1918)
Canadian War Department poster (painting by Frank Lucien Nicolet, 1918)
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Moina-Michael1950 --- 1950- Doris Day, nationally famous Warner Brothers motion picture, & favorite recording radio star, selected by the Veterans of Foreign wars as their 1950 Buddy Poppy Girl, is a uniquely appropriate choice for the annual national sale of Buddy Poppies, made by disabled ex-service men, to raise funds for rehabilitation and welfare work. Her outstanding success despite a crippling accident in her 'teens, is a strikig example of courage to "carry on". Miss Day was a member of the Bob Hope entertainment troupe which visited military installations and hospitals throughout the country. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBISPoppyNurse

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray And though she feels as if she’s in a play She is anyway … Penny Lane
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Qui veut aller jouer, au plus grand de tous les jeux, Le jeu rouge et fracassant du combat ? Qui saisira et affrontera sans peur ce boulot ? Et qui pense qu’il préfère rester dans son coin ? Jessie Pope (Who’s for the game ?, 1915)
Qui le sait que ça n’sera pas une promenade de santé — ça non ! — Et qui pourtant prend son fusil avec entrain ? Qui préfèrerait de loin revenir avec une béquille Que d’se terrer et rater la fête ? Jessie Pope (The Call)
Ami, avec ce bel entrain plus ne direz aux enfants brûlant de gloire désespérée, ce Mensonge de toujours : Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori. Wilfred Owen (Dulce Et Decorum Est, 1917)
Dans les champs de Flandre, les coquelicots ondulent entre les croix rang après rang … Poursuivez votre combat avec l’adversaire Nous vous lançons le flambeau de nos mains défaillantes afin qu’il soit vôtre et que vous le teniez haut … John McCrae (1915)
This poem was literally born of fire and blood during the hottest phase of the second battle of Ypres. My headquarters were in a trench on the top of the bank of the Ypres Canal, and John had his dressing station in a hole dug in the foot of the bank. During periods in the battle men who were shot actually rolled down the bank into his dressing station. Along from us a few hundred yards was the headquarters of a regiment, and many times during the sixteen days of battle, he and I watched them burying their dead whenever there was a lull. Thus the crosses, row on row, grew into a good-sized cemetery. Just as he describes, we often heard in the mornings the larks singing high in the air, between the crash of the shell and the reports of the guns in the battery just beside us. I have a letter from him in which he mentions having written the poem to pass away the time between the arrival of batches of wounded, and partly as an experiment with several varieties of poetic metre. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Morrison (former Ottawa newspaper editor)
Le bleuet était le surnom donné par les premiers poilus, porteurs des pantalons « rouge garance » de sinistre réputation, aux jeunes recrues de la classe 1915, qui eux n’avaient pas connu ces pantalons rouges garance, mais seulement l’uniforme bleu horizon. Le bleuet de France était un symbole commémoratif de la Première Guerre mondiale vendu sous forme de broches que l’on portait à la boutonnière. 63ème RAAA
Dead soldiers had no gravestones before the Great War, unless they were generals, admirals or emperors worthy of entombment in Saint Paul’s or Les Invalides. The soldiery were simply dumped into mass graves. At Waterloo, the remains of the dead were shipped off to England to be used as manure on the fields of Lincolnshire – sometimes tilled, no doubt, by their unsuspecting farmer sons. (…) Read her words; and cast poppies aside. For they are better, surely, than that terrible, almost orgiastic poem by the Toronto doctor John McCrae who died in 1915, and whose words inspired the armies of poppy-wearers. “In Flanders fields, the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row…” McCrae begins – but then his dead soldiers exhort the living to “Take up our quarrel with the foe…/ If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders Fields.” The poppies were there to remind us of our duty to kill more human beings. Robert Fisk
Au Canada et en Grande-Bretagne, l’anniversaire de l’Armistice n’est pas chômé mais, dans ces pays, les anciens combattants, les officiels et aussi les particuliers communient dans le souvenir des morts en portant un coquelicot de papier à la boutonnière. Cette fleur a une prédilection pour les sols fortement remués et, pour cette raison, s’épanouit dans les champs de bataille et les cimetières militaires. Cette particularité lui a valu d’être évoquée dans des poèmes à la mémoire des soldats défunts. On dit que deux jours avant l’armistice du 11 novembre 1918, une Américaine eut l’idée d’arborer un coquelicot sur la poitrine. Son idée fut aussitôt reprise par ses concitoyens et, en 1921, le feld-maréchal Douglas Haig encouragea la vente de coquelicots en papier par la Légion britannique en vue d’amasser des fonds pour les anciens combattants pauvres et invalides (British Poppy Day Appeal). André Larané

Attention: une éclosion peut en cacher une autre !

En forme d’hommage en ce 88e anniversaire de la fin de « la Grande Guerre » …

Du sacrifice de nos alliés « anglo-saxons » (plus d’un million d’hommes dont plus de 700 000 Britanniques, 66 000 Canadiens et 18 000 Néo-Zélandais, sur il est vrai près de 9 millions pour le total allié) …

Et pour tous ceux qui s’étonnent peut-être de cette soudaine éclosion de coquelicots à leurs boutonnières en cette journée de l’Armistice – ou sur leurs manches comme pour les All Blacks qui viennent de nous écraser copieusement …

Le fameux poème (l’un des plus purs rondeaux de la langue anglaise en fait) de l’officier, médecin militaire et poète canadien John Mc Crae, écrit sur le front même lors de la terrible bataille d’Ypres où l’armée allemande utilise pour la première fois les gaz de combat, suite à la mort d’un de ses camarades d’armes, ami proche et ancien étudiant …

Qui, à mi-chemin entre le bellicisme assumé du début de la guerre d’une chroniqueuse comme Jessie Pope et le féroce antimilitarisme, car plus tardif et directement vécu, d’un Wilfred Owen, se voit aujourd’hui critiqué pour l’apparemment naïf patriotisme de sa dernière strophe et les quelque 400 millions de dollars d’emprunts de guerre qu’il permit de récolter …

Et qui contribua tant au succès de la fête du coquelicot dite « Poppy Day », symbole du sang versé dans ces terribles tranchées des Flandres où, « réveillées » en quelque sorte par les incessants bombardements, les graines de ce membre de la famille des pavots enfouies depuis des décennies ou peut-être des siècles s’étaient miraculeusement écloses en un immense tapis de coquelicots

Fête ou plus précisément campagne de vente de coquelicots (puis de papillotes en papier en forme de coquelicot) qui,  à l’instar de nos bleuets de France et après l’universitaire américaine Moina Michael (elle-même inspirée par le poème de Mc Crae et dont elle composa une des nombreuses réponses), fut à l’origine (1922) …

Lancée par une Française, une certaine Mme Guérin, qui proposa à l’État-major britannique que les femmes et les enfants produisent des coquelicots pour recueillir des fonds pour les victimes de guerre …

In Flanders fields
John Mc Crae, 1915

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.

Il existe aussi une version en français écrite par le Canadien Jean Pariseau:

Au champ d’honneur

Au champ d’honneur, les coquelicots
Sont parsemés de lot en lot
Auprès des croix; et dans l’espace
Les alouettes devenues lasses
Mêlent leurs chants au sifflement
Des obusiers.
Nous sommes morts,
Nous qui songions la veille encor’
À nos parents, à nos amis,
C’est nous qui reposons ici,
Au champ d’honneur.
À vous jeunes désabusés,
À vous de porter l’oriflamme
Et de garder au fond de l’âme
Le goût de vivre en liberté.
Acceptez le défi, sinon
Les coquelicots se faneront
Au champ d’honneur.

Traduction plus littérale (modifiée par nos soins) :

Dans les champs de Flandre

Dans les champs de Flandre, les coquelicots ondulent
Entre les croix rang après rang
Qui marque notre place et dans le ciel
Les alouettes bravement chantent encore et volent
A peine audibles dans le bruit des canons
Nous sommes les morts. Il y a quelques jours,
Nous vivions encore, sentions l’aube, voyions s’embraser le soleil couchant
Aimions et étions aimés, et maintenant sommes étendus
Dans les champs de Flandre
Poursuivez votre combat avec l’adversaire
Nous vous lançons le flambeau de nos mains défaillantes
Afin qu’il soit vôtre et que vous le teniez haut
Si vous manquez de parole à nous qui mourons
Nous ne pourrons pas dormir bien que les coquelicots poussent
Dans les champs de Flandre

Voir aussi cette intéressante traduction qui réussit, elle, à conserver les rimes même si, rallongeant ou sacrifiant les renflements (refrains dits clausules, c.à.d. répétition de l’hémistiche du 1er vers à la fin des 2e et 3e strophes sans rime avec les vers précédents), elle perd du coup la perfection formelle du rondeau d’origine (aabba–aabR–aabbaR):

Les cimetières flamands
(Transl. J.P. van Noppen)

Sous les rouges coquelicots des cimetières flamands,
Qui parmi les rangées de croix bougent dans le vent,
Nous sommes enterrés. Et dans le bleu des cieux,
Les alouettes encore lancent leur cri courageux
Que plus personne n’entend sous le bruit des canons.

Nous sommes morts : il y a à peine quelques jours,
Nous connaissions les joies de la vie, de l’amour,
La fraicheur de l’aurore, les lueurs du ponant.
Maintenant nos corps sans vie reposent en sol flamand.

Nos mains inanimées vous tendent le flambeau :
C’est à vous, à présent, de le tenir bien haut,
De contre l’ennemi reprendre la querelle.
Si vous ne partagez des morts la foi rebelle,
Nos corps ne pourront pas dormir paisiblement
Sous les rouges coquelicots des cimetières flamands.

Voir aussi:

We Shall Keep the Faith

Moina Michael (November 1918)

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,

Sleep sweet – to rise anew!

We caught the torch you threw

And holding high, we keep the Faith

With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led;

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies,

But lends a lustre to the red

Of the flower that blooms above the dead

In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;

We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought

In Flanders Fields.

In Flanders Fields we fought

America’s Answer
R.W. Lillard

Rest ye in peace, ye Flanders dead
The fight that you so bravely led
We’ve taken up. And we will keep
True faith with you who lie asleep,
With each a cross to mark his bed,
And poppies blowing overhed,
When once his own life-blood ran red
So let your rest be sweet and deep
In Flanders Fields.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;
The torch ye threw to us we caught,
Ten million hands will hold it high,
And freedom’s light shall never die!
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders’ fields.

In Flanders Fields
(An Answer)
C.B. Galbreath (State Librarian of Ohio)

In Flanders Field the cannon boom,
And fitful flashes light the gloom,
While up above; like eagles, fly
The fierce destroyers in the sky;
With stains, the earth wherein you lie,
Is redder than the poppy bloom,
In Flanders Field.

Sleep on, ye brave, the shrieking shell,
The quaking trench, the startled yell,
The fury of the battle hell,
Shall wake you not, for all is well.
Sleep peacefully, for all is well.
Your flaming torch aloft we bear,
With burning heart, an oath we swear
To keep the faith, to fight it through,
To crush the foe, or sleep with you,
In Flanders Field.

In Flanders Now
Edna Jaques (1919)

We have kept faith, ye Flanders’ dead,
Sleep well beneath those poppies red,
That mark your place.
The torch your dying hands did throw,
We’ve held it high before the foe,
And answered bitter blow for blow,
In Flanders’ fields.

And where your heroes’ blood was spilled,
The guns are now forever stilled,
And silent grown.
There is no moaning of the slain,
There is no cry of tortured pain,
And blood will never flow again
In Flanders’ fields.

Forever holy in our sight,
Shall be those crosses gleaming white,
That guard your sleep.
Rest you in peace, the task is done,
The fight you left us we have won.
And ‘Peace on Earth’ has just begun,
In Flanders now.

Wonderful poppies of Flanders
William Kelly

There’s a land across the ocean
where the scarlet poppies grow
and the bird’s sweet song is saddened,
as if they really know.
There’s a place where countless heroes
for their country nobly died
though I’m sad and lonely now
I often think with pride :
(Chorus:)
Wonderful poppies of Flanders
Flowers of brilliant hue.
Flowers that the angels
have washed with their tears.
They bring me comfort,
through long, lonely years.

I’ve read a story of love divine
in your petals of brilliant red.
God, in his goodness, has sent you to mark
the graves of our glorious dead.

(Repeat Chorus)

There is love, devotion, honour
in each little scarlet flower.
I’d kiss each one so fondly
If I had but the power.
May the angels always tend you
is my constant hope and prayer.
For I know that God remembers
all the heroes sleeping there.

(Repeat Chorus

In Flanders Fields
Stan Hilborn (for Moscow rock band Romislokus, 2004)

starting with the text of the original poem, followed by

In Flanders fields the poppies grow,
We’ve left our soldiers, row by row
Far and away, on distant lands
Where they fought bravely
And made their stands.

For king, country and the cross,
Paid with lives, but what of the cost.
We cannot erase what we have done
War… there are only losers, winners none.

If we could all but learn from the past,
Then surely THAT war would have been the last.
Speaking for the ones that had to go,
Though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

(The third stanza of this reply-poem was not included in the song)

Voir encore:

Le symbole du Coquelicot

Guerre 14 18 en Alsace – Bataille du Linge 1915 – 63ème RAAA Poste 1/2 fixe 96

Le coquelicot, ou papaver rhoeas, est une fleur qui pousse dans les champs de céréales et sur le bord des routes, plus fréquemment quand le sol est calcaire.

Dans le langage des fleurs, le coquelicot incarne l’ardeur fragile ; les noces de coquelicots concrétisent 8 années de mariage.

==O=O==

Le coquelicot a été adopté, en particulier dans les pays du Commonwealth, comme symbole du Souvenir des combattants tombés sur le champ de bataille, tout spécialement lors de la Grande Guerre. Cette adoption a des origines multiples et internationales.

Dans un premier temps, on remarqua lors des guerres napoléoniennes que le coquelicot poussait sur les tombes des soldats morts au combat, probablement du fait de la remontée de calcaire provoqué par la fouille des tombes.

Ce phénomène réapparut une centaine d’années plus tard lors de la Grande Guerre, sur les tombes mais également sur le bord des tranchées.

==O=O==

La couleur rouge du coquelicot était également un symbole approprié pour suggérer le bain de sang de la guerre de tranchées ; tout ceci fut probablement à l’origine du poème du Colonel John McCrae.

John McCrae est né à Guelph en Ontario le 30 novembre 1872. Il s’est porté volontaire en 1890 pour servir son pays dans l’artillerie pendant à la guerre sud africaine des Boers. Il démissionnera de l’armée en 1904 avec le grade de capitaine.

Devenu un médecin et un professeur très respecté, il était très apprécié du fait son enthousiasme et du sens des responsabilités qu’il manifestait tant vis-à-vis de ses patients, de ses étudiants et de ses collègues.

Quand le 4 août 1914, la Grande-Bretagne déclara la guerre à l’Allemagne, le Canada, qui faisait partie de l’Empire britannique, entrait aussi en guerre. De tous les coins du pays les Canadiens s’empressèrent de répondre à l’appel. Moins de trois semaines plus tard, 45 000 s’étaient portés volontaires, dont John McCrae. Il fut nommé chirurgien au sein de la première brigade de l’Artillerie royale canadienne, avec le grade de major.

En avril 1915, John McCrae s’est retrouvé dans les tranchées d’Ypres, dans les Flandres belges qui furent le théâtre de combats sanglants de la Première Guerre mondiale. Le 22 avril, pour la première fois, les Allemands utilisèrent contre les troupes alliées un gaz mortel à base de chlore (Les Allemands testèrent sur ce même champ de bataille en juillet 1917 le gaz moutarde, d’où le nom d’Ypérite).

Malgré les effets du gaz, les soldats canadiens ont combattu sans relâche et ont pu tenir bon. John McCrae, responsable d’un poste médical situé dans un abri creusé sur les berges du canal de l’Yser, a soigné dans les tranchées des centaines de soldats blessés. Il était entouré de morts ou de mourants. Dans une lettre à sa mère, il écrivit ce qui suit au sujet de la bataille d’Ypres :

J’ai l’impression de vivre un cauchemar. Les combats sont horribles. Pendant 17 jours et 17 nuits, aucun d’entre nous n’a pu changer de vêtements, ni même enlever ses bottes, si ce n’est qu’à l’occasion. Pendant tout ce temps où je n’ai pas dormi, le bruit des fusils et des mitrailleuses n’a jamais cessé, si ce n’est que durant 60 secondes et comme toile de fond permanente, il y a la vue des morts, des blessés, des mutilés et la terrible angoisse que la ligne cède.

Le 2 mai, le lieutenant Alexis Helmer, âgé de 22 ans, ami de John McCrae, tomba sous le feu de l’artillerie ennemie. Après avoir déposé ses restes dans une couverture, John McCrae conduit lui même le service funèbre de son ami. Alexis Helmer fut inhumé dans une tombe de fortune marquée d’une simple croix de bois, près d’autres tombes où des coquelicots sauvages auraient déjà commencé à fleurir à travers les croix de bois.

Le lendemain, choqué, John McCrae, incapable de remplir sa mission de médecin responsable des secours aux autres soldats tombés, écrivit alors son poème « IN FLANDERS’ FIELDS ».

In Flanders fields

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 amidst 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

Dans les champs des Flandres, les coquelicots

Sont parsemés de lot en lot

Auprès des croix ; et dans l’espace

Les alouettes devenues lasses

Mêlent leurs chants au sifflement des obusiers.

Nous sommes morts,

Nous qui songions la veille encor’

À nos parents, à nos amis,

C’est nous qui reposons ici,

Dans les champs des Flandres.

À vous jeunes désabusés,

À vous de porter l’oriflamme

Et de garder au fond de l’âme

Le goût de vivre en liberté.

Acceptez le défi, sinon

Les coquelicots se faneront

Dans les champs des Flandres.

Peu après, il fut muté à l’Hôpital général canadien n° 3 en France, où il devint le chef des services médicaux. Aménagé au départ dans de grandes tentes entre Dannes et Camiers dans le Pas de Calais, le froid et l’humidité nécessitèrent son réaménagement dans les ruines d’un collège de Boulogne. L’hôpital comptait plus de 1 500 lits, on y amenait les blessés de la Somme, de la crête de Vimy, d’Ypres, d’Arras et de Passchendaele, lieux des batailles où les Canadiens avaient une part très active.

Durant l’été 1917, John McCrae fût victime de graves crises d’asthme et de bronchite. En janvier 1918, nommé consultant médical de la Première armée britannique, premier Canadien à recevoir un tel honneur, il s’est lui-même diagnostiqué le jour même de cette nomination une pneumonie. Transféré à l’Hôpital général britannique pour officiers, sa santé a continué à se détériorer, le 28 janvier il rendit l’âme des suites de sa maladie.

John McCrae a été inhumé avec tous les honneurs militaires revenant à son grade au cimetière de Wimereux, près de Boulogne

==O=O==

Moina Belle Michael

Deux jours avant l’Armistice, Mme Moina Belle Michael, enseignante américaine de Géorgie, volontaire du YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) la branche américaine d’une association caritative internationale fondée en 1844 par un pasteur britannique, lut le poème de John McCrae. Elle en fut profondément émue et, en réponse à John McCrae, composa son poème « We Shall Keep the Faith » :

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,

Sleep sweet – to rise anew!

We caught the torch you threw

And holding high, we keep the Faith

With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led ;

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies,

But lends a lustre to the red

Of the flower that blooms above the dead

In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught ;

We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought

In Flanders Fields.

Oh ! Vous qui dormez dans les champs des Flandres

Dormez bien – pour vous lever à nouveau ;

Nous avons repris le flambeau par vous brandi

Et le portant bien haut, nous respectons

La parole donnée par les morts.

Nous aussi chérissons le rouge du coquelicot

Qui pousse dans les champs où le courage régnait.

Il semble dire au ciel

Que le sang des héros est éternel.

Mais il donne au rouge l’éclat

Des fleurs qui s’épanouissent au-dessus des morts

Dans les champs de Flandres.

Et maintenant le flambeau et le coquelicot rouge

Que nous portons en l’honneur de nos morts.

Afin que vous ne soyez pas morts pour rien ;

Transmettra le message que vous nous avez laissé

Dans les champs de Flandres.

En souvenir de ceux qui étaient morts à la guerre, Mme Moina Belle Michael décida de porter un coquelicot durant toute l’année.

En 1920, une Française, Madame Anna E. Guérin, membre du YMCA en France, rencontra Moina Belle Michael aux États-Unis. Madame Anna E. Guérin créa une l’association «l’American and French Children’s League », pour vendre, à l’occasion de l’anniversaire de l’Armistice, des coquelicots en tissu faits à la main, afin de recueillir de l’argent pour aider les enfants des pays qui avaient été ravagés par la guerre en Europe.

Douglas HAIG

En 1921, le maréchal Douglas Haig, commandant des armées britanniques en France et en Belgique entendit parler cette initiative de madame Guérin et encouragea l’organisation du British Poppy Day Appeal en vue d’amasser des fonds pour les anciens combattants pauvres et invalides. La même année, madame Guérin au cours d’un voyage au Canada, réussit à convaincre l’Association des anciens combattants de la Grande Guerre d’adopter le coquelicot comme symbole du souvenir servant à la collecte de fonds.

Premier coquelicot

La première année, les coquelicots artificiels ont été achetés auprès de l’association de Mme Guérin, en France. Mais, dès 1922, les divers pays ont entrepris de fabriquer les fleurs chez eux. Au Canada, ils étaient fabriqués par l’atelier d’artisanat des anciens combattants du ministère du Rétablissement civil des soldats où travaillaient des soldats handicapés.

Aujourd’hui encore, le coquelicot est un symbole très fort du souvenir au Canada et en Grande Bretagne. La campagne du coquelicot constitue une très importante action de collecte de la Légion royale canadienne. Les fonds provenant des ventes de coquelicots permettent d’offrir une aide financière aux anciens militaires dans le besoin ; de subventionner l’achat d’appareils médicaux, la recherche, les services à domicile, les établissements de soins, etc.

The making of ‘In Flanders Fields’

Rob Ruggenberg

The poem « In Flanders Fields » by the Canadian army physician John McCrae (picture left) remains to this day one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is a lasting legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915.

The most asked question is: why poppies?

Wild poppies flower when other plants in their direct neighbourhood are dead. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years and years, but only when there are no more competing flowers or shrubs in the vicinity (for instance when someone firmly roots up the ground), these seeds will sprout.

There was enough rooted up soil on the battlefield of the Western Front; in fact the whole front consisted of churned up soil. So in May 1915, when McCrae wrote his poem, around him bloodred poppies blossomed like no one had ever seen before.

But in this poem the poppy plays one more role. The poppy is known as a symbol of sleep. The last line We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields might point to this fact. Some kinds of poppies are used to derive opium from, from which morphine is made. Morphine is one of the strongest painkillers and was often used to put a wounded soldier to sleep. Sometimes medical doctors used it in a higher dose to put the incurable wounded out of their misery.

Flanders is the name of the whole western part of Belgium. It is flat, soggy country where people speak Flemish, a kind of Dutch. Flanders (Vlaanderen in Flemish) holds old and famous cities like Antwerp, Bruges and Ypres. It is ancient battleground. For centuries the fields of Flanders have been soaked with blood.

‘In Flanders Fields’ is also the name of an American War Cemetery in Belgium (picture right), where 368 Americans are buried. This cemetery is situated near the village of Waregem, quite a distance from the place where McCrae actually wrote his poem. The cemetery got its name from the poem though. The bronze foot of the flag-staff is decorated with daisies and poppies.

Another reference to the poem can be found on the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy, in Northern France. Between the pylons stands ‘The Spirit of Sacrifice’: a figure holding high a burning torch, obviously referring to the last verse of McCrae’s poem.

‘In Flanders Fields’ may be the most famous poem of the Great War — sometimes only the first two verses are cited or printed. This is not just because of the lack of quality in the third verse, but also because this last verse speaks of an unending quarrel with the foe. And if one thing became clear during the Great War it was this: there was no quarrel between the soldiers (except maybe in the heat of a fight). The quarrel existed mainly in the minds of stupid politicians and generals who mostly never experienced the horror of the battlefield.

But McCrae was not opposed to war and this was not the first time he spoke of a continuing fight. Wars should go on, he thought, until all the wrongs of the earth are righted. In some countries authorities were so pleased with the pugnacious sentiments in the third verse of ‘In Flanders Fields’ that they exploited these lines in their propaganda. Since then the now widespread custom to honour with poppies those who died so that we could be free, has been, and still is, used and misused to justify wars.

Nevertheless I will give you the full and exact version of McCrae’s great poem, taken from his own, handwritten copy. But first, here is the story of how he wrote it — and how the recent death of a dear friend moved him.

Sixteen Days of Hell
Although he had been a doctor for years and had served in the bloody Boer War in South Africa, it was impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams, and the blood here in Flanders, and Major John McCrae had seen and heard enough in his dressing station to last him a lifetime.

As a surgeon attached to the Canadian 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Major McCrae had spent sixteen days treating injured men — Canadians, British, Indians, French and Germans — in the Ypres salient.

It had been an ordeal that he had hardly thought possible. McCrae later wrote to his mother:

« Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done. »
(Click here if you want to read the complete letter — and other letters that McCrae wrote from the front)One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former student, Lieut. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on 2 May 1915. His remains were scattered all over the place. Soldiers gathered them and put them in sandbags. These were laid on a army blanket that was closed with safety pins.

The burial, in the rapidly growing cemetery (called Essex Farm), just outside McCrae’s dressing station, was postponed until late that evening. McCrae performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain, reciting from memory some passages from the Church of England’s Order of Burial of the Dead. This happened in complete darkness, as for security reasons it was forbidden to make light.

The Poem
The next evening, sitting on the rearstep of an ambulance parked near the dressing station beside the Yser Canal, just a few hundred yards north of Ypres, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. The major was no stranger to writing, having authored several medical texts besides dabbling in poetry.

As McCrae sat there he heard larks singing and he could see the wild poppies that sprang up from the ditches and the graves in front of him (see the drawing right by Edward Morrison, or this picture of the cemetery, made shortly after the war).

He spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook.

A young soldier watched him write it. Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old sergeant-major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae. The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the sergeant-major stood there quietly.

« His face was very tired but calm as he wrote », Allinson recalled. « He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave. »

When McCrae finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO. Allinson was moved by what he read:

« The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene. »
Experimenting With The Metre
Allinson’s account corresponds with the words of the commanding officer at the spot, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Morrison. This is how Morrison (a former Ottawa newspaper editor) described the scene:

« This poem was literally born of fire and blood during the hottest phase of the second battle of Ypres. My headquarters were in a trench on the top of the bank of the Ypres Canal, and John had his dressing station in a hole dug in the foot of the bank. During periods in the battle men who were shot actually rolled down the bank into his dressing station.
Along from us a few hundred yards was the headquarters of a regiment, and many times during the sixteen days of battle, he and I watched them burying their dead whenever there was a lull. Thus the crosses, row on row, grew into a good-sized cemetery.
Just as he describes, we often heard in the mornings the larks singing high in the air, between the crash of the shell and the reports of the guns in the battery just beside us.
I have a letter from him in which he mentions having written the poem to pass away the time between the arrival of batches of wounded, and partly as an experiment with several varieties of poetic metre. »
The poem (initially called We shall not sleep) was very nearly not published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but Morrison retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England.

The Spectator, in London, rejected it and send the poem back, but Punch published it on 8 December 1915 (although the magazine misspelled his name as McCree and promoted him to Lt. Colonel):

Voir encore:

Le symbole du bleuet

Guerre 14 18 en Alsace – Bataille du Linge 1915 – 63ème RAAA Poste 1/2 fixe 96

Le bleuet ou centaurée est une fleur qui pousse dans les champs de céréales.

Dans le langage des fleurs, le bleuet est le messager de tous les sentiments délicats, tendres ou naïfs. Il traduit la pureté des sentiments et une certaine timidité.

Le bleuet était le surnom donné par les premiers poilus, porteurs des pantalons « rouge garance » de sinistre réputation, aux jeunes recrues de la classe 1915, qui eux n’avaient pas connus ces pantalons rouges garance, mais seulement l’uniforme bleu horizon.

Le bleuet de France était un symbole commémoratif de la Première Guerre mondiale vendu sous forme de broches que l’on portait à la boutonnière.

A l’origine de ce symbole on trouve deux femmes :

– Une infirmière, Suzanne LENHARD, veuve du Capitaine Maurice LENHARD du 21ème régiment d’infanterie coloniale, un Lorrain mort pour la France le 3 février 1915 à Massiges ;

– Charlotte Malleterre, fille du Général NIOX, Commandant de l’Hôtel des Invalides.

Ces deux femmes ont proposé aux blessés de guerre soignés aux Invalides de participer à une activité pour occuper leur désœuvrement forcé, et leur procurer un revenu.

Ces soldats mutilés faisaient un travail manuel minutieux : à partir de pétales qu’ils découpaient dans du tissu, et d’étamines qu’ils découpaient dans des journaux, ils fabriquaient des bleuets en souvenir des jeunes recrues de la classe 1915 à l’uniforme bleu horizon.

Ces mutilés de guerre, amputés ou défigurés (les gueules cassées) s’entraidaient pour réaliser ce travail, puis, avec le sentiment de pouvoir à nouveau travailler, ils entrevirent peu à peu les perspectives d’une réinsertion sociale et professionnelle.

Au début, la production était vendue à petite échelle dans Paris, puis quand en 1928 le Président de la République Gaston DOUMERGUE accorde son patronage au bleuet, les ventes s’étendent progressivement à la France entière.

Aujourd’hui, le Bleuet de France est toujours un symbole de mémoire et de solidarité promu par :

– l’Office National des Anciens Combattants et victimes de guerre (ONAC) ;

et

– l’Œuvre Nationale « Le Bleuet de France » Hôtel National des Invalides 75007 PARIS.

Le Bleuet de France

Cette dernière a pour mission de promouvoir et de faire connaître les valeurs civiques et morales attachées au Bleuet de France et de développer les collectes nationales qui portent son nom.

L’office national poursuit à ce titre « toutes les missions d’action sociale, de représentation et de participation aux manifestations patriotiques qu’assuraient précédemment le Comité du souvenir et l’Association nationale du Bleuet de France ».

Le champ d’intervention de l’Œuvre Nationale « Le Bleuet de France » ne se limite plus aux soldats blessés lors des deux conflits mondiaux et de la guerre d’Algérie ; il s’est élargi aux victimes du terrorisme, aux enfants et veuves des fonctionnaires tués ou blessés grièvement en service (policiers, pompiers, sauveteurs).

Un décret du 11 juin 1998 autorise l’Œuvre Nationale « Le Bleuet de France » à percevoir les produits de la vente de publications consacrées à la promotion et à l’illustration des valeurs civiques et morales attachées au Bleuet, ainsi que ceux résultant de la commercialisation de produits portant la marque du Bleuet, hormis ceux proposés à la générosité publique lors des collectes nationales du 8 mai et du 11 novembre. Cette nouvelle activité a pris la forme de livres éducatifs pour enfants relatant le premier conflit mondial et l’origine du Bleuet. L’Œuvre Nationale « Le Bleuet de France » est également habilitée à percevoir des dons de la part des particuliers et des entreprises ouvrant droit à des déductions fiscales.

Les ressources de l’Œuvre Nationale « Le Bleuet de France » proviennent principalement des ventes d’épinglettes et d’autocollants lors des commémorations du 8 mai et du 11 novembre ; elle envisage la vente de graines de Bleuet, labellisées « Bleuets de France », produites par l’École de Reconversion Professionnelle, ainsi que d’autres nouvelles formes de manifestations. L’année 2005 a ainsi permis de recueillir 1 079 000 €uros.

Voir par ailleurs:

Where did the idea to sell poppies come from?

BBC NEWS

10 November 2006

The first official poppy appeal was held 85 years ago in the UK. But when – and why – was the first poppy sold?

The red poppy worn around the world in remembrance of battlefield deaths has nothing to do with the blood shed in the brutal clashes of World War I.

Instead it symbolises the wild flowers that were the first plants to grow in the churned-up soil of soldiers’ graves in Belgium and northern France. Little else could grow in the blasted soil that became rich in lime from the rubble.

Their paper-thin red petals were the first signs of life and renewal, and in 1915 inspired Canadian doctor John McCrae to pen perhaps the most famous wartime poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row…

It was this poem which inspired an American war secretary to sell the first poppies to raise money for ex-soldiers.

Two days before the Armistice was declared at 11am on 11 November 1918, Moina Michael was working in the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters during its annual conference in New York.

While flipping through a copy of Ladies Home Journal, she came across McCrae’s poem, and was so moved that she vowed to always wear a red poppy in remembrance.

Poppy lady

That same day she was given $10 by the conference delegates in thanks for her hard work, which she spent on 25 silk poppies. Returning to the office with one pinned to her coat, she distributed the rest amongst the delegates.

POPPY FACTORY

# 36m buttonhole poppies and 100,000 wreaths each year

# Annual poppy appeal aims to raise £25m

# Money helps former British troops and their families

Since this group had given her the money with which to buy the flowers, Ms Michael saw this as the first sale of memorial poppies. She then threw her efforts into campaigning to get the poppy adopted as a national remembrance symbol.

Two years later, the National American Legion’s conference proclaimed the poppy as such. Among those at the conference was Madame E Guerin, from France, who saw poppy sales as a way to raise money for children in war-ravaged areas of France.

Having organised the sale of millions of poppies made by French widows in the United States, in 1921 she sent her poppy sellers to London.

Field Marshall Douglas Haig, a senior commander during WWI and a founder of the Royal British Legion, was sold on the idea (as were veterans’ groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand).

So that autumn, the newly-established legion sold its first remembrance poppies. And so the tradition began.

Voir de même:

Moina Michael

Georgia info

On Nov. 9, 1948, the U.S. Post Office held first-day-of-issue ceremonies in Athens, Ga. for a 3-cent commemorative stamp honoring Moina Michael. The stamp’s release came on the 30th anniversary of the day she conceived of the idea of selling poppies to help care for disabled soldiers and their families.

Born in the Walton County community of Good Hope on Aug. 15, 1869, she attended Lucy Cobb Institute and the Georgia State Teachers College–both in Athens–and Columbia University. On Nov. 9, 1918–two days before the armistice was signed ending World War I–Michael was reading the Ladies Home Journal and saw a poem entitled « We Shall Not Sleep » (which was later called « In Flanders Fields ») written by Col. John McCrae:

WE SHALL NOT SLEEP

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.

Moved by what she read, Michael took a pen and wrote the following poem in response:

WE SHALL KEEP THE FAITH

Oh! You who sleep in « Flanders Fields, »

Sleep sweet — to rise anew!

We caught the torch you threw

And, holding high, we keep the Faith

With all who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led;

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies,

But lends a lustre to the red

Of the flower that blooms above the dead

In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy red

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;

We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought

In Flanders Fields.

Thus was born the idea of selling memorial poppies to assist disabled veterans and their families. The movement caught on, and for the rest of her life Michael was known as the « Poppy Lady. » During her life she received many awards and recognitions. She died in Athens on May 10, 1944. Four years later, the Post Office issued a commemorative stamp in her memory. In 1969, the Georgia General Assembly designated the stretch of U.S. highway 78 between Athens and Monroe as the Moina Michael Highway.

Voir aussi:

Flanders Poppies Blow Up Furor in Canada

The Los Angeles Times

February 11, 2001

From Associated Press

OTTAWA — Canadians know that Flanders Fields contain poppies, but whether they grow or blow is in question with the issuing of a new $10 bill.

The new currency, in circulation since Jan. 17, has the opening verse of Canadian poet John McCrae’s famous World War I poem, « In Flanders Fields, » on the back:

« 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. »

Once the notes hit the streets, though, the Bank of Canada began receiving calls from people–including schoolteachers–convinced the first line should be « In Flanders Fields the poppies grow, » said bank spokesman Joe Basile.

Although the version on the bill is correct, Basile said he understands the confusion and was wrong himself about exactly what the poppies did.

« When I thought about the poem, I thought of it in terms of ‘where poppies grow,’  » he said. « So it’s not all that surprising that there is that misconception out there. »

The source of the confusion remains unclear, though it well may have been a simple mistake that became a popular misconception. Basile said the text on the bill was taken from a copy of McCrae’s handwritten manuscript obtained from government archives.

The poem was written under fire during the war. McCrae died of pneumonia in 1918.

Poppies traditionally have been sold by veterans around Memorial and Veterans days. The flower became linked to the war dead through McCrae’s poem saluting soldiers killed in France in World War I.

Basile said money collectors hoping that the new $10 bills would be recalled were mistaken.

« There’s always people looking for a misprint because it increases the value of the note, » he said. In this case, though, « there is no misprint and there is no recall. »

Voir de même:

Le symbole du souvenir

Monnaie royale canadienne

Peu après la fin de la Première Guerre mondiale, le coquelicot est devenu, dans plusieurs pays, un symbole profond du souvenir de cette guerre.

Le lien que l’on fait entre le coquelicot et ceux qui sont morts à la guerre date toutefois des guerres napoléoniennes du XIXe siècle. À cette époque, la fleur rouge fleurissait soudainement dans les champs ravagés par la guerre où de nombreux soldats avaient laissé leur vie.

Ce phénomène était d’autant plus mystérieux que les coquelicots fleurissaient dans des champs où la terre était stérile depuis longtemps, comme c’était le cas dans les Flandres lors de la Première Guerre mondiale. Pendant la guerre, les bombes, les obus d’artillerie et autres projectiles avaient retourné la terre, exposant ainsi les graines de coquelicots dormantes, une mauvaise herbe répandue dans les champs à travers l’Europe. Ce processus donnait donc au coquelicot la lumière dont il avait besoin pour pousser. Les fleurs rouge sang reproduisaient une scène presque surréaliste, ondulant sur les tombes des soldats morts au combat.

En 1915, John McCrae, médecin et soldat canadien, a fait état de ce phénomène dans son célèbre poème immortalisant le symbole du coquelicot, Au champ d’honneur.

Son poème a inspiré une série d’événements qui ont mené à l’adoption des coquelicots fabriqués à la main et portés à la mémoire de ceux qui sont morts à la guerre afin de recueillir des fonds pour les anciens combattants et leurs familles.

Aujourd’hui, des gens de partout au Canada arborent leur réminiscence collective et se souviennent des sacrifices des héros décédés en portant un coquelicot le jour du Souvenir.

A symbol of remembrance

Royal

The poppy became a profound symbol of wartime remembrance in many countries shortly after WWI.

The association of the poppy to those killed in the war, however, dates back to the Napoleonic wars in the 19th Century, during which time the red flower suddenly bloomed in war-torn fields where countless soldiers had died.

The reason this phenomenon was seen as mysterious is because the poppies bloomed in fields where the land had long been barren, as was the case in Flanders Fields, France in WWI. During the war, bombs, artillery shells, and shrapnel upturned the soil exposing dormant corn poppy seeds – a common weed in grain fields across Europe – to the light it needed to grow. The blood-red flowers painted an almost incredulous scene as they swayed over the graves of fallen soldiers.

In 1915, Canadian doctor and soldier John McCrae recorded this phenomenon in his famous poem In Flanders Fields, immortalizing the symbol of the poppy.

His poem inspired a series of events that led to the adoption of handmade poppies to be worn in memory of those who fell in the war and to raise money for veterans and their families.

Today, people from all parts of Canada choose to display their collective reminiscence and remember the sacrifices of fallen heroes by wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day.

COMPLEMENT (2007):

Why I won’t be wearing a poppy
I don’t agree with this increasing sense that we must wear our hearts on our sleeves – so why should I wear a poppy on my lapel?
Kate Bevan

10 October 2007

‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row … ‘ Photograph: Graham Turner / Guardian

It’s getting towards that time of year when people on telly sport red paper poppies on their lapels as a mark of remembrance and respect for the millions who have died in the wars of the past century and beyond. I do a bit of telly work – reviewing the papers on BBC News 24, mostly, plus the occasional bit of rent-a-punditry – and this year, as with every other year, I won’t be wearing a poppy.

Last year Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow was at the centre of a howl of moral outrage – led by that guardian of middle-class morals, the Daily Mail – when he said he wouldn’t be succumbing to pressure to wear a poppy on air. Jon and I discussed this at some length by email and he said to me that he believed that one of the reasons so many soldiers died in wars was to preserve freedoms such as the choice not to wear symbols like the poppy.

My reasons are a little different to Jon’s. First, I’m nowhere near as high-profile a TV presence as he is (thank God) and so my decision can therefore be much more personal rather than taking a stand. I – like pretty much everyone else with two brain cells to rub together – have a huge sense of respect and gratitude for the service of people who fought in the front line against fascism. However, I feel strongly that that’s a personal belief, not one I need to display by the wearing of a poppy. Respect comes from within, and I know that I don’t lack it.

I also feel that the wearing of a poppy has become part of our national obsession with visible grief, and that makes me uncomfortable. I show my emotions to my friends and the people I love, but I don’t show them in any public forum, and nor should I or anyone else be expected to. When I review the papers, I’m doing so in a professional capacity as a journalist and commentator: the audience doesn’t need to know about anything in my personal life and nor am I going to share that.

However, there’s an increasing sense that we must all wear our hearts on our sleeves and that if we don’t take part in outpourings of grief, whether it’s for the death of a princess, concern for a missing toddler, or the senseless shooting of a little boy in Liverpool, then we must somehow be lacking in humanity. We are exhorted to take part in two-minute silences for the passing of a footballer. On a street corner near my home in west London, a makeshift shrine has been maintained for several weeks following the ugly murder of a local man. I’ve read the tributes and I’m sad and disgusted that a young man was killed in a stupid confrontation, but I don’t feel the need to lay flowers and sob openly for him, or indeed for anyone I don’t know.

So for me, the pressure to wear a poppy – and I’ve had to explicitly refuse a poppy from producers at the BBC before now – amounts to pressure to be more open about my emotions than I’m comfortable with. I, together with everyone else who appears on television, am entitled to keep my emotions private. I know how I feel about war, just as I know how I feel about many things, and I’m not given to wearing my heart on my sleeve. And so, by extension, I’m not going to wear a poppy on my lapel.

COMPLEMENT (2008):

Jessie Pope: the Daily Mail’s favourite first world war poet

Lindesay Irvine

The Guardian

11 Nov 2008

When we look back to the first world war, it is generally the poets we turn to for the authentic voice of suffering humanity. Owen, Sassoon, Thomas – these are the secular saints of a conflict whose brutality remains barely imaginable, whose work counts the human costs that were wilfully disregarded at the time.

But, as a newly published entry in the venerable Dictionary of National Biography reminds us, that doesn’t go for all the poets of that era. Reading her poetry today it’s not hard to work out why Jessie Pope’s work has been forgotten:

Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much-

Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?

Who would much rather come back with a crutch

Than lie low and be out of the fun?

is a pretty characteristic blast of doggerel. These days her name, if known at all, is remembered as the original, specific target of « Dulce et Decorum Est ».

But during the war, thanks to the good offices of the Daily Mail and other such stalwart champions of the national cause, her tub-thumping, eerily jolly exhortations to fight reached a vast readership while the poets we now revere were virtually unknown.

It’s an interesting reminder of how poetry’s rhetorical clout can be co-opted for propaganda. But it’s well worth reading the short biography, which shows her as more than a cheerleader for slaughter, and harder to despise than you might expect.

COMPLEMENT (2009):

For Veterans’ Day: On John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”

Amanda French

November 11, 2009

In honor of Veterans’ Day (also known as Armistice Day), I’m posting here a short essay on the poem that inspired the Flanders poppy, John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” This “essay” is actually a section of my 2004 dissertation, which concerns the 19-line poetic form called “the villanelle”; in the course of researching that, I noodled around with some rondeaus as well (or “rondeaux,” if you want to get all French about it), and, to put it plainly, I just got really really interested in the most famous rondeau of all, “In Flanders Fields.”

From “Refrain, Again: The Return of the Villanelle”

A much more significant individual poem in the social history of the French forms than Pound’s “Villanelle” was John McCrae’s rondeau “In Flanders Fields,” first published anonymously in the December 8, 1915 issue of London’s widely-circulated illustrated magazine Punch:

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.

“In Flanders Fields” was a tremendous popular phenomenon in World War One. Its author, John McCrae, was a Canadian doctor, Scottish by birth, who had served in the Boer War of 1899-1902; he died in 1918, just before the war ended, of pneumonia. Although it is not clear who first singled out the poem in Punch for attention, by 1917 it was so well-known that one famous Canadian Victory Bonds poster and billboard could simply allude to it (see Figure 2).

Canadian Victory Bonds poster

Figure 2: Canadian Victory Bonds poster, Frank Lucien Nicolet, 1917.

The Victory Bonds campaign had been meant to raise $150 million; instead it raised $400 million, and the poster’s artist, Frank Lucien Nicolet, was awarded a prize by the Canadian government. At least a dozen songs based on the poem appeared between 1917 and 1919, including one by John Philip Sousa. “Reply poems” also proliferated. Most famously, the Flanders poppy became an instantly recognizable symbol worn in Canada and Britain on November 11, Remembrance Day, to commemorate the Great War dead.

Few of the patriots and propagandists who quoted the poem seemed aware that it was an example of a traditional French form, a form with a name, history, and fixed scheme. Such knowledge was irrelevant, or seemed so. Reply poems, for instance, invariably imitated “In Flanders Fields” even to the point of lifting entire phrases from it, yet just as invariably altered the scheme even when apparently attempting to emulate it. Medieval and Renaissance fixed-form rondeaus were of ten, thirteen, or fifteen lines; in the nineteenth century, the post-Romantics (including Banville in his Petit traité de poésie française) overwhelmingly preferred the fifteen-line scheme: aabba aabR aabbaR, with the refrain (“R”) consisting of the first few words of the first line of the poem. McCrae’s poem, like the rondeaus of post-Romantics such as Banville and Dobson, adheres precisely to this scheme, whereas the scheme of Moina Michael’s 1918 reply poem “We Shall Keep the Faith” is only somewhat similar:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,

Sleep sweet — to rise anew!

We caught the torch you threw

And holding high, we keep the Faith

With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led;

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies,

But lends a lustre to the red

Of the flower that blooms above the dead

In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;

We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought

In Flanders Fields. (Michael 3)

The scheme of Michael’s poem is abbcd eeffggR gghhR; it is a form based essentially on stanzas of rhymed couplets with a single hemistich appended to each stanza. With its three top-heavy stanzas of varying length, it looks like “In Flanders Fields,” but it is almost as different in structure as it is in tone, diction, meter, and sense. Moina Michael, a teacher at the University of Georgia, had seen McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” reprinted in the Ladies’ Home Journal just before the Armistice in 1918, and the poem and accompanying illustration (see Figure 3) moved her so strongly that, she reported, she immediately composed the above poem on the back of an envelope.

Ladies’ Home Journal poem

Figure 3: Ladies’ Home Journal 35.11 (1918 Nov): 56.

Subsequently, Michael was the prime mover in getting the Flanders poppy adopted as a Remembrance Day symbol, and was the first to sell artificial poppies as a fundraising tactic. Despite her great investment in the poem’s message and symbolism, however, she remained unaware of the tradition behind its form.

Perhaps the most notable example of ignorance of the rondeau with respect to “In Flanders Fields” came in 1919, when a posthumous collection of McCrae’s poems was published. A biographical essay appended to In Flanders Fields, and Other Poems explained at length that “In Flanders Fields” was a highly original variety of sonnet. Sir Andrew Macphail, who had edited the University Magazine at McGill University in Montreal when McCrae was a student there, claimed that he had known that McCrae was the author of the anonymous poem in Punch because he recognized its form, having remembered publishing an earlier poem of McCrae’s titled “The Night Cometh” with the same scheme:

It will be observed at once by reference to the text that in form the two poems are identical. They contain the same number of lines and feet as surely all sonnets do. Each travels upon two rhymes with the members of a broken couplet in widely separated refrain.[…] It was a form upon which he had worked for years, and made his own. When the moment arrived the medium was ready. No other medium could have so well conveyed the thought (50).

Macphail, unaware that both poems are rondeaus, argues that their (supposedly) unusual form is proof of McCrae’s originality. Macphail, led in his opinion by another semi-literary army officer, even avers that “In Flanders Fields” has reached such a height of innovative structural excellence that its novel “sonnet” form might well become fixed:

The poem was first called to my attention by a Sapper officer, then Major, now Brigadier. […] This officer could himself weave the sonnet with deft fingers, and he pointed out many deep things. It is to the sappers that the army always goes for “technical material.”

The poem, he explained, consists of thirteen lines in iambic tetrameter and two lines of two iambics each; in all, one line more than the sonnet’s count. There are two rhymes only, since the short lines must be considered blank, and are, in fact, identical. But it is a difficult mode. It is true, he allowed, that the octet of the sonnet has only two rhymes, but these recur only four times, and the liberty of the sestet tempers its despotism,–which I thought a pretty phrase.[…] One is so often reminded of the poverty of men’s invention, their best being so incomplete, that one welcomes what–this Sapper officer surmised–may become a new and fixed mode of expression in verse. (53-5)

This ingeniously incorrect explication shows that the fact that “In Flanders Fields” was a rondeau had nothing to do with its popular success. It was not held up as an excellent example of the form, as it is today in some poetry handbooks. The form was unknown to most of McCrae’s contemporary readers, even to those with literary pretensions and with a strong desire to prove that McCrae was a gifted poet. There can be little doubt that if the sapper officer had known of the rondeau, Macphail would have argued that skill with a traditional form rather than formal innovation was McCrae’s particular gift. Clearly the influence of modernism’s “make it new” philosophy had sufficiently permeated the mainstream for Macphail to be able to cite inventiveness as a positive trait for a poet–yet Macphail seems slightly embarrassed to be taking such a position: “one welcomes” innovation only because there is little else to welcome.

The explanation for John McCrae’s adoption of the rondeau form is likely to have been almost exactly the opposite of that forwarded by Macphail. McCrae’s rondeau, like Stephen’s villanelle, shows that its author is writing from the cautious margins rather making daring Poundian forays from the safe center. To be Canadian was to be at least as provincial (by London and Oxford standards) as to be Irish; McCrae, ten years older than Joyce and by profession a doctor, never made the move that Joyce made away from late-Victorian styles toward a fresh and international, or extra-national, modernist experimentalism. McCrae had begun publishing poetry in McGill’s University Magazine, Varsity, and Canadian Magazine in the eighteen-nineties. In form many of McCrae’s poems, like Joyce’s in Chamber Music, were simple abab or aabb stanzas; there were also several ballads, indicating that McCrae had been influenced by the pre-Raphaelites and/or by Scottish models. Two poems, “Isandlwana” and “The Song of the Derelict,” are on a scheme which appears to be a rather unusual ballad variation: aRaRbbbR. Robert Burns’s “Duncan Gray,” composed about 1792, is on the same scheme; the Scotland-born McCrae might here be placing himself in a Scottish tradition. That the rondeau was a “French” form may have contributed to his interest in it (though his models were more likely to be the English examples of the eighteen-eighties and eighteen-nineties); McCrae’s poetry, with its French and Scottish and English schemes, almost seems to imitate the elbow-to-elbow populations of French, Scottish, and English extraction in Montreal.

“In Flanders Fields” has in the twentieth century probably been considered most important in the context of Canadian poetry and Canadian national identity. The scholar Thomas B. Vincent addresses the question of why the heroic ideal survives in the work of McCrae and other Canadian poets of the Great War when British poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen abandoned that ideal; he attributes this difference chiefly to Canada’s emerging nationhood:

Instinctively, if not consciously, the Canadian poets discovered that, culturally, Canada was not Britain. They understood what poets like Owen were talking about; they had the personal experience required to appreciate that. But they knew in their poetic guts that the grim vision of life that energized Owen’s verse was not relevant to Canadian imagination in a central way. […] Among intelligent Canadians, there was no denial of the obscenities of war or of the moral implications of these brutalities, but there was also no denial of the perception that war contributed significantly to national maturation […] (167)

In this argument, McCrae’s poetry defines itself as Canadian by defining itself against British poetry, but it might be more accurate to say that McCrae’s poetry defines itself as Canadian by defining itself with pre-war poetry and values. McCrae’s values, like his poetic forms, were just behind the curve of nations more secure in their nationhood.

Still, when compared with the typical rondeau in Gleeson White’s 1887 anthology Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles &c, “In Flanders Fields” looks remarkably modern. “The Sweet, Sad Years,” by Rev. Charles D. Bell, D. D., for instance, begins “The sweet sad years; the sun, the rain, / Alas! too quickly did they wane” and continues in the typical key of a pleasurable romantic melancholy expressed in end-stopped lines, archaic diction, and inverted syntax (153). The association of such predictable poems with the rondeau form had never fully entered public consciousness, but serious poetry professionals still remembered, and judged “In Flanders Fields” harshly not only by comparing it to the more radical poems emerging from modernism, but also by comparing it to the puerile rondeaus that had emerged from the vers de société movement. When In Flanders Fields, and Other Poems was reviewed in the July 1919 issue of Poetry along with several other war-themed works, Alice Corbin Henderson (whose unfavorable review of Joyce’s Chamber Music had appeared in the previous issue of Poetry) recognized “In Flanders Fields” as a rondeau. This, she considered, was in itself a flaw:

The books listed above are mostly journalism, but now and then some poem lifts the emotion of the moment into song, thus winning a chance of survival after the moment has passed. John McCrae achieves this in the much-quoted In Flanders Fields–achieves it by sheer simplicity and concentration in the expression of a moving and tragic appeal. Another poem on the same motive a living soldier’s address to The Anxious Dead is perhaps still finer, and its quatrains fit the subject better than the too slight rondeau form of the first. (221)

Henderson was virtually alone among critics in awarding even this qualified praise to “In Flanders Fields”; the poem’s very success with an ignorant public probably doomed it in the discriminating eyes of the modernists and their inheritors even after the reputation of the French forms for “slightness” had been forgotten. Yet “In Flanders Fields,” rather like Stephen’s villanelle, was neither wholly akin to its “too-slight” schematic progenitors nor wholly divided from them, though certainly the poem achieved too perfect a compromise with traditional forms and values to be attractive to the modernists.

“In Flanders Fields” has long been disregarded or harshly judged by literary scholars, most notably by Paul Fussell in his well-known work The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), who writes that “words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far” to describe the final stanza of the poem. Fussell also avers that “indeed it could be said that the rigorously regular meter with which the poem introduces the poppies makes them seem already fabricated of wire and paper,” even though the poem’s meter is by no means clumsy, varying through caesura and enjambment if not through substitution (249). Fussell nevertheless makes an interesting point about the implications of the poppy as a choice of symbol; in Fussell’s argument, the image of the poppy–like the rondeau form, which Fussell does not discuss–serves to link McCrae’s poem with the work of the Decadents:

It would be a mistake to imagine that the poppies in Great War writings got there just because they are actually there in the French and Belgian fields.[…] For half a century before the fortuitous publicity attained by the poppies of Flanders, this association with homoerotic love had been conventional, in works by Wilde, Douglas, the Victorian painter Simeon Solomon, John Addington Symonds, and countless others. (247-8)

Fussell sees “the conception of soldiers as lovers” in the lines “Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie / In Flanders fields”; such references serve to link the poem only too firmly, in Fussell’s view, to “Victorian male sentimental poetry” (248).

Fred Crawford, in his 1988 book British Poets of the Great War, shares Fussell’s judgment: “That the poem’s closing seems unworthy of its beginning results from two abrupt shifts–the change in tone to the demand and threat of the last six lines and the use of chivalric imagery and diction […] outside the pastoral tradition for which the reader has been prepared” (38). Both critics seem to resent what is after all nothing but a standard volta in the third stanza, finding the turn both unconvincing and offensive, and the more so because the first two stanzas of the poem seem to promise a fully modernist take on the Great War. As Vincent writes, “Indeed, the narrative voice of the poem has some disturbing similarities to that of Eliot’s ‘Hollow Men’ ” (169). Vincent, like Crawford and Fussell, places the poem in the pastoral tradition, but because none of these critics discuss the rondeau form, they all miss the point that the poem is most influenced by the faux-pastoral and decidedly chivalric “tradition” of late-Victorian Paris and London. The false pastoral of the “French forms” becomes, even if unintentionally, highly appropriate for the false pastoral of the battlefield, and one of the chief points of “In Flanders Fields” is that pastoral conventions simply cannot be applied any longer.

One of the most interesting aspects of the poem, I would also argue, is the very “demand and threat” that Crawford recoils from. Surely one of the best reasons for its effectiveness as propaganda is its barely buried exposé of the true engine of war: the poem appeals only apparently to loyalty; ultimately, it appeals to fear. And fear is why we fight. The central image is of a spectral vengeance that seems more frightening than any merely human war, and the foe seems less menacing than the potentially traitorous civilians on “our” side. The poem’s readers were no doubt glad to purchase absolution from an unconfessable fear and guilt by buying indulgences in the form of Victory Bonds and British Legion poppies.

COMPLEMENT (2010):

Poppies, patriotism and the souring of an honourable tradition

The scarlet poppy is a symbol of blood sacrifice and death; it is also a symbol of the stubborn renewal of hope and life

John Lichfield

The Independent

6 November 2010

« On TV screens, the poppies grow, On every lapel, row on row. » They bloom earlier each year, it seems.

A kind of poppy arms race has broken out between the different channels. Our newsreaders are more patriotic, or caring, than your newsreaders, the TV bosses seem to say. Ditto our football pundits, weathermen and women, telly chefs and game-show contestants.

Not to wear a poppy on screen, like Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, has become a subject for complaint by viewers, angry discussion in blogs and instant opinion polls in the flag-waving end of the press. Poppies are in danger of becoming the opium of the populists: a kind of mandatory badge of patriotism or an unthinking, seasonal fashion statement, like the tinsel which grows like chickweed in shop windows from early November. Poppies are a beautiful symbol of remembrance. They deserve to be cherished. They should be a simple, personal statement of respect for the long dead or of support for Our Boys and Girls wounded overseas.

The Poppy Appeal by the British Legion (which hopes to raise £36m this year) is the most worthwhile of charitable causes. Whatever you may think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, British servicemen and women injured there, or in earlier conflicts, deserve our care. Anything that promotes poppy sales would, I imagine, be welcomed by the Legion’s fundraisers. All the same, the fate of the poppy in the mass-media age is worrying. Is it to become so banalised that its ambivalent meaning, and origins, are forgotten? Is it to become a compulsory statement of national fervour?

The hue and cry against Jon Snow (who reasonably insists that he will wear his poppy only on Remembrance day itself) is fatuous. During the 1914-18 war women famously handed feathers to men who were not in uniform. Are we heading for a situation where poppies will be handed to empty-lapelled dissidents in the street by stern-faced Daily Express readers?

The controversy raises wider questions about the whole issue of remembrance. Why, and how, should we still remember the First World War? Or even the Second? Although the Poppy Appeal is financially important to the British Legion, it represents only about a third of its annual income. At the same time, the annual poppy fortnight from early November, antedated deep into October this year by some BBC presenters, is something more than just an appeal. It has become Britain’s biggest public show of military and historical commemoration. Unlike the French and Americans, we do not take a day off work to remember our war dead. We wear poppies instead.

There is no equivalent elsewhere (except more discreetly in Australia, Canada and New Zealand). The poppy as a badge of First World War memories began, it is startling to discover, in the United States. It still survives in parts of the US but has died out there as a national phenomenon. In France, the symbol of First World War remembrance is not the poppy but the bleuet or cornflower. Both are flowers whose seeds survive deep in the ground for decades, even for centuries. They bloom after the ground has been ploughed by tractors – or by shells. When parts of northern France and Belgium were churned up in 1914-18, poppies and cornflowers sprang up almost overnight, in no-man’s-land or among the rows of freshly dug graves.

The choice of the poppy as the symbol of the war dead is usually traced to « In Flanders Fields », a 1915 poem by a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, which I parodied above. The true first lines are:

« In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row … »

The poem, interestingly, foreshadows the present debate over the poppy. Is it a symbol of patriotic pride? Or a humble way of remembering suffering and sacrifice, whatever your view of that terrible conflict or of all war? The second verse of the poem can be read as a bitter denunciation of the futility of warfare:

« 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. »

The third verse can be read as a patriotic call to arms:

« 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. »

To me, the ambivalence is what the poem is about. Nearly a century later, ambivalence is still the best way to approach the First World War – and all wars. Why, in 1914-18, did a Western world which was beginning, for the first time, to respect and value individuals pour them into its new mincing machine of military-industrial power? Why did an educated population stand for it? The answer, in part, is that one of our first uses of mass literacy and mass education was to inculcate an unthinking patriotism and nationalism – in Britain and France, as much as in Germany. The innocence and confidence of the young men in boaters and flat caps who queued to join the Pals’ Battalions in 1914 was born from a Boys’ Own Magazine conviction that British-is-best as much as a belief in freedom and democracy.

And yet, can we confidently state that they were not defending freedom and democracy? There are more British visitors to the First World War battlefields and cemeteries today than ever before. Talking to them, you still find some who believe that the war was a great patriotic and democratic crusade and some who believe that it was a criminal waste of life. You find many people who – quite reasonably – believe both. Arguments over the poppy are not new. Attempts began as early as the 1930s to popularise an alternative, pacifist « white poppy ». They have never had much success. I believe that this is because the poppy – like the McCrae poem – has always been an ambivalent statement.

The scarlet poppy is a symbol of blood sacrifice and death; it is also a symbol of the stubborn renewal of hope and life. It can be worn as a symbol of pride but also as a symbol of grief and of refusal to forget the lessons of the past. The attempts to enforce poppy-wearing as a patriotic act diminish the true value of the poppy as a personal statement and an ambiguous statement. They veer toward the kind of unthinking patriotism and nationalism which made the 1914-18 war possible in the first place.

I have often had reason, professionally and privately, to visit the British First World War cemeteries, an extraordinary archipelago of English country gardens scattered across northern France and Belgium. I try also to visit the German cemeteries, which are dull and dank and little visited (and hardly at all by Germans). Usually, there is only one splash of colour among the German graves: a wreath of poppies left there by a visiting, British school party. Now that is the proper use of the poppy.

COMPLEMENT (2012):

11 Novembre : le grand retour du Bleuet de France

Cette marque de solidarité datant de 1916 vise à soutenir les familles des morts pour la France.

Jean Guisnel

Le Point

09/11/2012

Pour la première fois depuis 1922 – voici donc 90 ans ! -, le 11 Novembre ne marquera plus solennellement la seule célébration de la fin de la Première Guerre mondiale, mais sera également une journée d’hommage à tous les morts pour la France. Cette évolution avait été voulue par Nicolas Sarkozy qui avait fait déposer un projet de loi en ce sens en décembre 2011. La nouvelle loi du 22 février 2012 stipule donc que le 11 Novembre honorera dorénavant « tous les morts pour la France », tout en précisant que « cet hommage ne se substitue pas aux autres journées de commémoration nationale ».

L’actuel chef de l’État François Hollande, qui présidera les cérémonies de dimanche à l’Arc de Triomphe, avait fait connaître en son temps son opposition à cette évolution en déclarant voici un an que « chaque célébration doit rester ce qu’elle signifie par elle-même. Le 11 Novembre, c’est la Première Guerre mondiale ». Mais c’était avant son élection, et la nouvelle loi est depuis passée par là…

L’exemple de la Royal British Legion

On remarquera d’ailleurs une évolution, notable ces jours-ci sur la poitrine des militaires en uniforme. À l’instar des Britanniques qui arborent en masse le rouge « poppy », marque de leur solidarité avec les soldats morts ou blessés au combat, les armées françaises souhaitent relancer une ancienne marque de solidarité allant dans le même sens, le Bleuet de France. Cette organisation née en 1916 avait perdu de sa superbe, mais un groupe d’officiers de l’École de guerre et du cours supérieur d’état-major (CSEM) a décidé de relancer la collecte en sa faveur, chaque donateur recevant un bleuet de papier qu’il peut accrocher à son revers.

« C’est un symbole joli, fort et désintéressé du lien entre l’armée et la nation », a expliqué au Point.fr le commandant Emmanuel Dubois, l’un des initiateurs de ce mouvement, qui a trouvé un écho certain. Le chef d’état-major des armées, l’amiral Édouard Guillaud, vient d’encourager dans un message à l’ensemble des unités tous les militaires à porter le bleuet de France sur leur tenue, y compris durant les heures de service.

L’oeuvre du Bleuet de France, administrée par l’Office national des anciens combattants et victimes de guerre, soutient financièrement les familles des militaires ou des policiers blessés ou morts pour la France, ainsi que les victimes du terrorisme qui se trouvent dans ce cas. 90 % de ses très maigres ressources proviennent essentiellement des collectes sur la voie publique le jour du 11 Novembre (environ 1,2 million d’euros pour les meilleures années). Loin encore des sommets atteints par la Royal British Legion, qui récolte chaque année plus de 50 millions d’euros avec son Poppy !

Voir aussi:

Pourquoi les coquelicots poussent souvent au bord de la route?

Le coquelicot (Papaver sp.) est une espèce messicole (plante associée aux moissons). On l’appelle aussi une adventice des moissons (une plante qui s’ajoute à un peuplement végétal auquel elle est initialement étrangère, ici le champ de blé). C’est une fleur qui pousse en compagnie du blé ou des céréales et d’autres messicoles connues, le bleuet, la matricaire, la nielle des blés…Ses graines sont très nombreuses (1 coquelicot produit 50 000 à 60 000 graines par saison !). Elles se mélangent aux grains de blé lors de la récolte et sont ressemées avec eux l’année suivante.

La graine du coquelicot a peu d’exigences pour germer. Il lui suffit d’une terre remuée. C’est une graine de grande longévité, car elle résiste bien au manque d’eau et à l’enfouissement. On la trouve donc présente dans des terrains remués, comme les champs et les bords de route et de chemins, les saignées d’autoroute, les chantiers.

Cependant, la présence de coquelicots dans un champ de blé déprécie la culture : le coquelicot est considéré comme une mauvaise herbe : – il fait concurrence aux plants de blé lors de la levée de germination, – sa présence en grande quantité diminue le rendement de la récolte, – et par les substances toxiques qu’il contient dans son suc (entre autre la morphine), il pollue la farine.

Un premier moyen de diminuer les messicoles dans les champs de céréales, c’est le tri et l’origine des semences. On ne ressème plus le blé récolté l’année précédente : on sème des semences achetées aux producteurs, qui répondent à des conditions sanitaires strictes. Ces semences sont bien exemptes de toute graine de messicole. D’autre part, l’agriculture moderne utilise largement les herbicides pour réduire la présence des mauvaises herbes des champs de céréales.

Chassées des champs où elles se multipliaient en grande quantité, on les retrouve principalement sur le bord des champs (chemins) et des routes, mais aussi dès l’ouverture d’un chantier, d’une décharge…au niveau de toute terre remuée et abandonnée provisoirement (milieux rudéraux).

La disparition des coquelicots des champs de blé s’est accompagnée aussi de celle des autres adventices que nous avons citées : par exemple la magnifique nielle des blés est considérée comme pratiquement disparue. Un peu de poésie pour terminer et une vieille légende rurale qui prétend que les couleurs de notre drapeau national ne traduisent pas les couleurs historiques de la Révolution (le bleu et le rouge) encadrant celle du roi (le blanc), mais plutôt celles des fleurs des champs : le bleu du bleuet, le blanc de la matricaire et le rouge du coquelicot !

Cakie, le 21 janvier 2011.

COMPLEMENT (2013):

Poppycock – or why remembrance rituals make me see red

The poppy helps us avoid a search for the meaning of war

Robert Fisk

The Independent

7 November 2013

On the briefest of visits to London, I was appalled to notice that our television presenters and politicians and dignitaries have almost all resorted to stereotype by wearing those bloody poppies again – even though I suspect most of them would not know the difference between the Dardanelles and the Somme. How come this obscene fashion appendage – inspired by a pro-war poem, for God’s sake, which demands yet further human sacrifice – still adorns the jackets and blouses of the Great and the Good? Even Tony Blair dares to wear a poppy – he who lied us into a war, which killed more people than the Battle of Mons.

I know all the reasons they give us. We must remember our dead. “They” died for us and our freedom. The cost of sacrifice. Remember Passchendaele. Never forget. At school I used to wear a poppy – without the leaf which now prettifies this wretched flower – and so did my Dad who, as I often recall, was a soldier of that Great War, in the trenches of the Third Battle of the Somme, 1918, and at Cambrai. But then, as 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk grew older and became sick, he read the biographies of that most meretricious of officers, Earl Haig – butcher Haig of the Somme, whose wife gave her name to the original poppies – and came to regard the wearing of these sickly and fake petals as hypocrisy. He stopped wearing the poppy for 11 November, and so did I.

At Ypres four years ago, I was honoured to give the Armistice Day lecture just before 11 November; but I did not wear a poppy and politely declined to lay a wreath at the Menin Gate – that “sepulchre of crime” as Sassoon called it – and I discovered, as the clergy purred away beneath the names of the 54,896 Great War soldiers with no known grave, a headstone atop the city’s old medieval wall. Nothing could equal the words which his family had courageously inscribed above the final resting place of 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young, who died on 16 August, 1917: “Sacrifice to the fallacy that war can end.”

So is there not some better way to remember this monstrous crime against humanity? The pity of war, as Wilfred Owen described it, must, for individuals, have a finite end, a point when time – looking backwards – just runs out. British men and women – and children – who visit the Somme battlefields and their vast cemeteries, still cry, and I can understand why. Here lies indeed the flower of youth cut short, only just over a generation distant. But we do not cry when we visit Waterloo or Agincourt. At Flanders Fields, the tears still flow. But not at Flodden Field. Who even weeps for the dead of the Boer War? No poppies for them. Only when you move into religious ecstasy can the long dead touch our souls. Watch the Christians walking the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem, or the Iraqi Shia remembering in the oven-like heat of Najaf and Kerballa the martyrdom of Imams Ali and Hussain. The tears splash down their clothes.

Perhaps in war, it’s the names that count. Dead soldiers had no gravestones before the Great War, unless they were generals, admirals or emperors worthy of entombment in Saint Paul’s or Les Invalides. The soldiery were simply dumped into mass graves. At Waterloo, the remains of the dead were shipped off to England to be used as manure on the fields of Lincolnshire – sometimes tilled, no doubt, by their unsuspecting farmer sons. So much for our remembrance of the “thin red line”. No posthumous glory for them.

Yet glory, I fear, does lie somewhere in our souls when we decide to bless our clothes with this preposterous poppy, this little paper and plastic “blood-drop” on our breasts, fake flowers that supposedly spring from the blood-red soil of the Flanders dead. It is perhaps easier to believe that the names will “live for evermore” – as it says on the walls of cemeteries of both Great Wars of the 20th century – even though hundreds of thousands of First World War Brits and French and Germans and Austrians and Irishmen in British uniform and Hungarians and Indians and Russians and Americans and Turks and, yes, even Portuguese (at Ypres) have no graves at all. But the poppy also helps us avoid a search for the meaning of war.

Wyndam Lewis, the master of Vorticist art who became a soldier at Ypres, wrote of the Great War that it “went on far too long… It was too vast for its meaning, like a giant with the brain of a midge. Its epic proportions were grotesquely out of scale, seeing what it was fought to settle. It was far too indecisive. It settled nothing, as it meant nothing. Indeed, it was impossible to escape the feeling that it was not meant to settle anything – that could have any meaning, or be of any advantage, to the general run of men.”

Tolstoy caught the other side of this “non-meaning” of war in his critique of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. An “event took place”, he wrote in War and Peace, “opposed to human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, incendiarisms and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.”

It was Lewis’s idea – that war was ultimately devoid of meaning – which my father was, I think, trying to capture when he described the 1914-18 conflict to me in his hospital room as “just one great waste”. He had survived that war and outlived another and the end of the British Empire, which I suspect we have not ceased mourning – could that be really what the poppies are all about? – and even lived long enough to watch the first Gulf War on television. He often quoted what he believed to be the last words of Nurse Edith Cavell, shot in Brussels by the Germans for rescuing Allied soldiers behind enemy lines, words which are inscribed on her monument beside the National Gallery: “Patriotism is not enough.” But in full, her very last words – spoken to a British chaplain before she was executed – were these: “But this I would say, standing in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” Read her words; and cast poppies aside.

For they are better, surely, than that terrible, almost orgiastic poem by the Toronto doctor John McCrae who died in 1915, and whose words inspired the armies of poppy-wearers. “In Flanders fields, the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row…” McCrae begins – but then his dead soldiers exhort the living to “Take up our quarrel with the foe…/ If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders Fields.” The poppies were there to remind us of our duty to kill more human beings.

And what did I see on television a few hours before writing these words? Why, the mayor of Toronto – McCrea’s own city – admitting to the smoking of crack cocaine. “I sincerely, sincerely, sincerely apologise,” he burbled to us all. And what did I see in his jacket button hole? A bloody poppy! How they must have cried at Passchendaele…

Remembrance Day and the Case of the $400,000,000 Poem

Mike Chasar

Arcade

11.02.2013

I like to think of John McCrae’s « In Flanders Fields » as the $400,000,000 poem, and not just because its first stanza has appeared on the back of the Canadian $10 bank note—a fact that, all by itself, makes McCrae’s World War I-era verse one of the most widely circulated poems in history. I also think of it as the $400,000,000 poem because, shortly after it appeared in the December 8, 1915, issue of Punch magazine, the Canadian government made « In Flanders Fields » a central piece of its public relations campaign advertising the sale of the first Victory Loan Bonds, printing it, or excerpts from it, on billboards and posters like the one pictured here. According to Canadian Veterans Affairs and other sources, the campaign was designed to raise $150,000,000 but ended up netting—wait for it—more than $400,000,000.

Whoever said that « poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper » clearly wasn’t thinking of McCrae’s rondeau, which is the centerpiece of Remembrance or Veterans Day (November 11) activities worldwide and turned the red or « Buddy » poppy into the day’s icon, manufacture and sale of which has been a regular source of funding for disabled and needy VFW veterans as well as for war orphans and surviving spouses of veterans in the U.S. since 1923. It is memorized by school kids, recited at Remembrance Day events, has elicited all sorts of reply poems and been put to music, and resulted in the restoration of McCrae’s birthplace in Guelph, Ontario, as a museum. In Ypres, Belgium, there’s even a World War I museum that takes its name from the poem.

By most accounts, McCrae composed « In Flanders Fields » in 1915, the day after witnessing the death of his 22 year-old friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, and legend has it that McCrae ripped the poem out of his notebook and cast it aside amongst the blood-red poppies on the battlefield where it was rescued by an onlooker and sent to Punch, which printed it anonymously:

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.

By 1917, the Canadian government had paired « In Flanders Fields » with the painting (by British-born Canadian artist Frank Lucien Nicolet) of a soldier standing in the poppy fields and was raising its millions of dollars in Victory Loan Bonds.

In the most famous piece of literary-critical commentary on « In Flanders Fields, » Paul Fussell (see The Great War and Modern Memory) doesn’t have too many good things to say about the poem, claiming that the « rigorously regular meter » makes the poppies of the poem’s first stanza « seem already fabricated of wire and paper » (249). Nevertheless, he finds the verse « interesting » for the way in which it « manages to accumulate the maximum number of [emotion-triggering] motifs and images … under the aegis of a mellow, if automatic, pastoralism » (249). In the first nine lines alone, Fussell explains, you’ve got « the red flowers of pastoral elegy; the ‘crosses’ suggestive of calvaries and thus of sacrifice; the sky, especially noticeable from the confines of a trench; the larks bravely singing in apparent critique of man’s folly; the binary opposition between the song of the larks and the noise of the guns; the special awareness of dawn and sunset at morning and evening stand-to’s; the conception of soldiers as lovers; and the focus on the ironic antithesis between beds and the graves ‘where now we lie' » (249). But Fussell saves his most damning critique—what he calls « [breaking] this butterfly upon the wheel » (250)—for the poem’s final lines, which devolve into what he calls « recruiting-poster rhetoric apparently applicable to any war » (249). « We finally see—and with a shock— » he writes, « what the last lines really are: they are a propaganda argument—words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far—against a negotiated peace » (250). (For another examination of the poem in relation to McCrae’s Canadian national identity and the rondeau form, see Amanda French’s paper « Poetic Propaganda and the Provincial Patriotism of ‘In Flanders Fields' » first presented at the 2005 SCMLA conference.)

Fussell’s right, isn’t he? As the slogan « If ye break faith—we shall not sleep » in the « Buy Victory Bonds » ad indicates, McCrae’s poem was in fact pitch-perfect « recruiting-poster rhetoric, » wasn’t it? Well, almost. I would submit that it’s worth noting how the Canadian government didn’t exactly quote « In Flanders Fields » word for word. Instead, it excised the four words (« with us who die ») that separate « If ye break faith » from « we shall not sleep » in the original poem—an act that works to repress the war’s human costs and thus redirect the expression of faith to its financial ones. That is, in staging the purchase of Victory Bonds as an act of remembrance, the Canadian advertisement actually erases the object of the McCrae’s memorial (« us who die »). In this bowdlerized version of the poem—and I don’t use the term bowdlerize facetiously, as it means « to remove those parts of a text considered offensive, vulgar, or otherwise unseemly »—the poster sanitizes the war by silencing the voices of its dead, depicting war as a financial commitment rather than a human struggle and thus making the « propaganda argument … against a negotiated peace » that Fussell describes.

But the repressed has a way of returning, just like the dead do. Consider, for example, the awesome item pictured here—a used ink blotter with Canada’s « Buy Victory Bonds » ad featured on front. On the reverse, the ink stains grimly read like blood stains. And on the « front » (where the pun asks us to also read it as the battle line of war), the artifact’s owner Vivian Hogarth signed her name in the upper right corner and corrected Canada’s version of the poem, restoring the phrase « with us who die » and thus—in an act of what we might think of as zombie poetics—effectively writing the dead back into existence. Thank you, Vivian Hogarth. That’s the type of memorial we would do well to keep in mind this Remembrance Day.

COMPLEMENT (2008)

Nurse in The Beatles’ Penny Lane identified after 40 years
A nurse referred to in the lyrics of The Beatles’ song Penny Lane has finally been identified after more than 40 years.
Graham Tibbetts

Telegraph
28 Oct 2008

Since the song was released in 1967 the identity of the « pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray » has remained a mystery. But a schoolfriend of John Lennon’s, who has written a book about growing up in Liverpool, claims to have the answer.
According to Stan Williams, she is Beth Davidson, who Lennon would have known from childhood.
The moment which provided the inspiration came when Miss Davidson was selling poppies on Penny Lane, dressed in a cadet nurse’s uniform.
Some boys, including Lennon, saw her near Bioletti’s barber’s shop – also mentioned in the song – and struck up a conversation with her.

It is recognised that Paul McCartney wrote most of the Penny Lane lyrics, but Mr Williams, 68, is convinced that Lennon contributed the nurse reference.

The song says: « Behind the shelter in the middle of the roundabout, the pretty nurse is selling poppies from the tray, and though she feels she’s in a play, she is anyway. »

Miss Davidson went on to marry Pete Shotton, a close friend of Lennon’s and fellow member of The Quarrymen, the forerunner of The Beatles. She died from cancer in the 1970s.

Mr Williams said: « In my mind’s eye, I still like to visit that special October day in 1954 when Beth had her image trapped within the lens of Lennon’s creative imagination. »

15 commentaires pour 11 novembre: Une histoire de coquelicots (In Flanders fields the poppies blow)

  1. Sphynxter dit :

    Il y a aussi une version écrite par le Canadien Jean Morin.
    Intéressé?

    J'aime

  2. jcdurbant dit :

    Oui, volontiers, merci.

    J'aime

  3. […] Londres, 7 novembre (ANI). Anjem Choudary, un prédicateur qui prêche la haine dont nous avons déja parlé sur Bivouac-id ici et ici , a soulevé un tollé au Royaume-Uni après avoir enjoint aux musulmans britanniques de ne pas porter le coquelicot, qui est le symbole commémoratif des victimes des guerres auxquelles ont participé les citoyens britanniques, musulmans compris (lire). […]

    J'aime

  4. Sphynxter dit :

    Dans les champs de Flandres
    Dansent les coquelicots
    Ils couvrent nos lits
    De croix en croix
    En rangs serrés

    Et dans leur vol
    Bravement
    Chantent les allouettes
    Sourdes
    Aux bruits des armes

    Nous sommes les morts
    Hier encore
    Nous vivions
    Sentions l’aurore
    Goûtions les crépuscules dorés
    Nous aimions
    Et nous étions aimés
    Et maintenant nous sommes couchés
    Dans les champs de Flandres

    À vous de lutter
    Nos mains blessées
    Vour rendent la flamme
    À vous de la brandir

    Si vous trompez notre foi
    Nous qui sommes morts
    Comment pourrons-nous reposer

    Même sous les coquelicots
    Dans les champs de Flandres

    ***
    Traduction Jean Morin
    Ottawa, novembre 2005

    J'aime

  5. Je ne savais pas du tout l’histoire du coquelicot et si bien écrit c’est un ami Belge qui vient de m’en parler ,une questions puis-je prendre ce poème pour le mettre sur son blog je ne fais rien pour le moment bonne journée et merci et je ne suis pas sur facebook mais sur google plus;

    azaleedesalpes@gmail.com

    J'aime

  6. jcdurbant dit :

    Pas de problème: je pense qu’il doit être dans le domaine public …

    J'aime

  7. jcdurbant dit :

    A signaler aussi, la réouverture, après rénovation en 2012, d’un des musées militaires d’Ypres (Ypres Salient Memorial Museum, rebaptisé Musée In Flanders fields en 1998 …

    The In Flanders’ Fields Museum is devoted to the study of World War I and occupies the second floor of the Cloth Hall, Ypres in Belgium. The building was virtually destroyed by artillery fire during the First World War and has been reconstructed. The curator, Piet Chielens, is a World War I historian. The museum is named for the famous poem by Canadian John McCrae.

    Visitors to the museum will find no glorification of war; rather the museum suggests the futility of war, especially as seen in Flanders in World War I.

    Following a closure for refurbishments, the museum has reopened in June 2012. The renovation goes well beyond a new layout and embellishments, and is aimed at providing visitors with a more intense perception and richer experience. It also presents a general introduction to World War I in Flanders with reference to other sites and museums, and is intended to encourage the visitor to view the actual sites for themselves. The museum includes a new World War I research centre.

    Wikipedia

    J'aime

  8. jcdurbant dit :

    Voir aussi:

    Avant la première Guerre Mondiale, il n’y avait quasiment pas de coquelicots en Flandre. Pourtant les bombardements sur les terres de Flandre rendirent le terreau propice à la pousse de coquelicots. Des champs de coquelicots firent alors miraculeusement leur apparition.

    Mais c’est aussi là que moururent des milliers de combattants. C’est la raison pour laquelle cette fleur est devenue le symbole britannique pour les soldats sacrifiés à la guerre, l’équivalent du bleuet en France.

    Cette impressionnante exposition en plein air vient en commémoration du centenaire de la déclaration de guerre du Royaume-Uni à l’Allemagne, le 4 août 1914.

    Un coquelicot pour chaque soldat mort pendant la première guerre mondiale. Cela donne en tout 888 246 coquelicots éparpillés autour de la tour de Londres, qui se déversent depuis une fenêtre de la tour et se répandent tout autour de celle-ci.

    Les deux concepteurs à l’origine de ce splendide spectacle ne sont autres que Paul Cummins, un créateur céramiste, et Tim Piper, un designer …

    La Croix

    Voir aussi:

    De l’autre côté de la Manche, une initiative en hommage aux vétérans a pris une ampleur spectaculaire. Des coquelicots en céramique sont achetés par des anonymes et plantés à côté de la Tour de Londres.

    France 2

    J'aime

  9. jcdurbant dit :

    Even before World War I, the poppy served as a symbol of life, death and rebirth, as their seeds can be buried in the earth for years without blooming. The flowers only emerge when soil is churned and the seeds are brought closer to the surface. After the Napoleonic wars tore through Europe in the early 19th century, for example, fields of poppies sprung up over battlefields across the continent. In 1914, when fighting and explosive warfare again devastated lands through Europe, the flowers could be seen blooming anew, famously appearing in the fields around Flanders, an area of intense fighting near the Belgium/France border. In 1915, after presiding over the funeral of a friend who died in Second Battle of Ypres near Flanders, John McCrae, a Canadian poet and solider, wrote a famous poem inspired by the poppies of Flanders fields … The poppy was adopted as the official flower of Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1922. It is also heavily associated with Remembrance Day (also known as Poppy Day) in England and other Commonwealth countries.

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/wwi-anniversary-tower-london-bleeding-poppies-180952236/#aiIHhe4BeoYeOPe1.99

    The red poppy is a symbol of remembrance for a reason: In Western Europe, it is the first wildflower to appear when soil is churned up. So after a war, fields where soldiers fell become vast expanses of crimson blooms. The ceramic poppies at the Tower of London are not planted in orderly rows. They look like an undulating sea from afar. Up close, each bloom is unique. Droplets cling to them from a recent shower. Against the walls of the tower, they crest like a wave of water — or, given the color, like a wave of blood. They cascade from one of the tower windows to the ground like a waterfall, and a 30-foot curl of red poppies crests over the tower’s main entrance. The concept came from a ceramic artist named Paul Cummings. He decided to make the flowers, but he had no place to put them. « So we said, we have the real estate, » explains Brown. A British theatrical designer, Tom Piper, provided the design and interpretation of the idea.

    Lynne England came from the New Forest on England’s southern coast to plant poppies with her husband, Arthur, in honor of her great-uncle. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for holding his position while under fire during WWI. « He was shot three times, but he held position. And because of that, he saved a lot of British lives. So we felt we had to come and plant a poppy for him today, » she says.

    « I’m almost in tears just talking to you now, » she says. « Just look at it — every single poppy, every poppy you hold, is somebody’s life. »

    http://www.npr.org/2014/08/16/340649115/a-sea-of-ceramic-poppies-honors-britains-wwi-dead

    Paul Cummins … was inspired by a line in the will of a Derbyshire man who joined up in the earliest days of the war and died in Flanders. Knowing that everyone was dead and he was surrounded by blood, the man wrote: ‘The Blood Swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread.’ From this line came the idea for 888,246 poppies, one for each British or Colonial military fatality during the First World War.

    http://poppies.hrp.org.uk/about-the-installation

    The whole installation is about transience and loss; making it about permanence and our own delight in the symbolism of ceramic flowers would turn it into something else altogether and gradually strip it of meaning. It’s wonderful that so many tourists saw them but the poppies were not conceived as a tourist attraction… the poppies aren’t there to give us something pleasing to look at – an aesthetic treat before heading off to an evening out …

    India Knight

    http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/comment/columns/indiaknight/article1481039.ece

    The great field of ceramic poppies filling the moat around the Tower of London, as if they had been planted or poured out of a window, have caught the collective imagination. They are impressive; size and quantity are always impressive. But they also look strangely bland — a bloodbath of fake flowers. What is far more dramatically moving and profound are the crowds of people who have poured in from all over the country, and now the world, to stand and stare. They see something else. As so often with memorials, they see more than is in front of their eyes. They bring the emotional gravitas with them, a pocketful, one at a time. And altogether the sense and the weight and the intensity of their looking raise an ugly roundabout on the edge of the mammon-grabbing City into something ethereal, like a poem or a prayer.

    AA Gill

    http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/article1481277.ece

    Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is a 2014 work of installation art placed in the moat of the Tower of London, England, commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. The artist is Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper. The work’s title is taken from the first line of a poem by an unknown World War I soldier, which begins: « The blood swept lands and seas of red, / Where angels dare to tread / …  » The work consists of a sea of ceramic red poppies, being added progressively by volunteers.[3] All the poppies have been individually hand-made in a ceramics factory in Derbyshire.[4] It is intended that there will eventually be 888,246 of these, representing one estimate[5] of the number of British and Colonial military fatalities in World War I. The sea of flowers is arranged to resemble a pool of blood which appears to be pouring out of a bastion window (the « Weeping Window »). The first poppy was planted on 17 July 2014, and the work was unveiled on 5 August (the centenary of Britain’s entry into the war). It is planned to remain on display until 11 November 2014 (Armistice Day). Members of the public are invited to purchase the ceramic poppies, with a share of the proceeds going to service charities.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_Swept_Lands_and_Seas_of_Red

    Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

    The blood swept lands and seas of red,
    Where angels dare to tread.
    As God cried a tear of pain as the angels fell,
    Again and again.
    As the tears of mine fell to the ground
    To sleep with the flowers of red
    As any be dead
    My children see and work through fields of my
    Own with corn and wheat,
    Blessed by love so far from pain of my resting
    Fields so far from my love.
    It be time to put my hand up and end this pain
    Of living hell. to see the people around me
    Fall someone angel as the mist falls around
    And the rain so thick with black thunder I hear
    Over the clouds, to sleep forever and kiss
    The flower of my people gone before time
    To sleep and cry no more
    I put my hand up and see the land of red,
    This is my time to go over,
    I may not come back
    So sleep, kiss the boys for me

    http://www.coming-home.org.uk/…/tower-london-poppies-volunt…

    J'aime

  10. jcdurbant dit :

    Why the poppy ?

    The poppy has a long association with Remembrance Day. But how did the distinctive red flower become such a potent symbol of our remembrance of the sacrifices made in past wars?

    Scarlet corn poppies (popaver rhoeas) grow naturally in conditions of disturbed earth throughout Western Europe. The destruction brought by the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th Century transformed bare land into fields of blood red poppies, growing around the bodies of the fallen soldiers.

    In late 1914, the fields of Northern France and Flanders were once again ripped open as World War One raged through Europe’s heart. Once the conflict was over the poppy was one of the only plants to grow on the otherwise barren battlefields.

    The significance of the poppy as a lasting memorial symbol to the fallen was realised by the Canadian surgeon John McCrae in his poem In Flanders Fields. The poppy came to represent the immeasurable sacrifice made by his comrades and quickly became a lasting memorial to those who died in World War One and later conflicts. It was adopted by The Royal British Legion as the symbol for their Poppy Appeal, in aid of those serving in the British Armed Forces, after its formation in 1921.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/remembrance/how/poppy.shtml

    J'aime

  11. jcdurbant dit :

    Gardens: why the poppy is more than a symbol of remembrance
    There’s a good reason we’ve adopted the poppy to remember our war dead. But it is also a hopeful flower: of life following death, of the triumph of nature over even the ugliest of man-made scars
    Lia Leemdertz
    The Guardian,
    14 March 2014

    Every soil contains a bank of sleeping seeds. They will lie dormant below the surface for years, waiting for the moment when moisture, temperature and sunlight combine to create the perfect conditions for germination – which is usually when those seeds are serendipitously brought to the surface. This is why – in the days before they were meticulously sprayed out – corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) would pop up in corn fields: the annual turning of the soil churned the seeds to the surface and, being a pioneer species, they were able to get up and away before the corn crowded them out.

    This is also why they became a feature of the deathly landscape at Flanders. Though thousands of terrified, weary boys were the first casualty of trench warfare, nature was the second. This vicious style of battle, with its endless explosions churning up the earth, left the area almost devoid of life. But when every blade of grass and tree had been scorched, blown apart and trampled, when the soil had been dug to depths that would never normally be troubled, poppy seeds were liberated from dormancy and found themselves with sunlight, water, bare soil – and no competition. After a long, cold winter, the weather around Ypres in Belgium was unusually warm in the spring of 1915, and soon poppies sprung into life.

    Their blooms, tissue-delicate and blood-red, must have been a poignant sight to men surrounded only by mud and death. In Flanders Fields, the poem that inspired the use of poppy as remembrance symbol, was written in May 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who was stationed at Ypres. Its final line, written from the point of view of a dead soldier, hints at a bitterness that such life could spring forth among all this: « We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields. »

    It is easy to see why the poppy has become our symbol of remembrance. It is euphemistic, yet at the same time it places you physically in that awful place. But the poppy is also hopeful: of life following death, of the triumph of beautiful nature over the ugliest of man-made scars.

    It is 100 years this summer since the outbreak of the first world war, and to mark it the Royal British Legion has launched the Centenary Poppy Seed Campaign. It wants to see swathes of poppies growing throughout the country this year, and now is the time to buy and sow their seeds.

    While the poppies of Flanders burst into bloom without a scrap of tending, there were millions of seeds in that soil, waiting to succeed or fail, and you will have only a small packet, so give yourself a good chance of success.

    I struggle each year with the wearing of a poppy: sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t; and sometimes I wear a white poppy, for peace. Poppy-wearing feels obligatory these days, and non-poppy-wearing frowned upon – it has become a way of publicly proclaiming a mix of patriotism and empathy, and I would hate for our gardens to go the way of our newsreaders’ lapels. But even so, I want to commemorate the war this year, and a ribbon of poppies in a corner of my allotment may be the way for me to overcome my qualms …

    J'aime

  12. jcdurbant dit :

    Opinion / Commentary
    The case against In Flanders Fields
    The pro-war propaganda of John McCrae’s poem entirely fails to express the spirit of Remembrance Day.

    John Barber Published on Mon Nov 16 2015

    In The Great War and Modern Memory, his celebrated study of the traumatized literature that sprang from the horrors of trench warfare, U.S. soldier-critic Paul Fussell paused to “break a butterfly on the wheel” — his victim being the most famous of all Canadian poems, the very one that schoolchildren solemnly recite every November, that is engraved on the $10 bill and countless monuments across the country, that has given us a symbol as sacred as the maple leaf, and is entrusted like no other verse to express the highest, gravest sentiments of the nation.

    “Words like ‘vicious’ and ‘stupid’ would not seem to go too far” in describing the pro-war propaganda of John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, Fussell wrote. Like the handful of other critics who have dared to make the same point, Fussell was struck by the contrast between the poem’s evocative beginning and the harsh “recruiting poster rhetoric” of its final stanza, spoken in the voice of the Dead:

    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 …

    Modern Canadians prefer to gloss over that verse, just as modern believers wink at the inevitable nasty bits in ancient scriptures. But for McCrae and the military authorities of the day, it was the whole point. The poem was unabashed propaganda, a call to arms used by both the Canadian government and the poet to recruit more soldiers to the killing ground.

    It worked: Fussell blames In Flanders Fields for helping extend the war at a time when the Allies were considering a German offer to begin peace negotiations. By accepting peace, McCrae argued in what appears to be a direct response, we render meaningless the sacrifice of those already dead. To make peace is to “break faith.”

    Thus every November millions of Canadian schoolchildren recite a solemn vow to continue killing Germans.

    Economists will recognize McCrae’s argument as a classic example of the ever-seductive sunk-cost fallacy, except that the costs of the First World War were measured in lives. More than 60,000 Canadian soldiers ultimately died to settle an imperial quarrel in which they had no stake.

    The First World War is often said to have been a crucible of Canadian identity. But unlike the obviously righteous Second World War, in memory it remains a fathomless moral abyss.

    Canadian scholar Nancy Holmes was more generous than Fussell in her essay on In Flanders Fields, admiring the poem’s evocative first lines while reviling the last six. She sees McCrae’s mid-poem breakdown as a typical expression of our abiding colonial mentality — “one that is informed by good intentions but that is disfigured by an unusual susceptibility to the vested interests of power.”

    For lessons about the First World War, all honours go to the British poets whose bleak truth-telling helped to shorten rather than prolong the conflict. But strangely enough, there was a Canadian soldier-poet also recuperating from severe “shell shock” beside Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in the Craiglockhart War Hospital, the unlikely literary milieu made famous in novelist Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy.

    Like Owen a protege and friend of Sassoon, Frank “Toronto” Prewett is as obscure as McCrae is famous. He crawled out of the trenches wracked in mind and body, his literary promise both ignited and ruined by the war. But there is nothing disfigured about the scant verse he did produce. It is brutally honest about the savage futility of war.

    Remembrance Day could only gain meaning if every recitation of In Flanders Fields was followed by a reading of Prewett’s The Somme Valley, 1917, which stands as a grimly ironic reply to his compatriot’s call to arms — and could well have been intended as such. It even has McCrae’s larks and foe:

    Comrade, why do you weep?

    Is it sorrow for a friend

    Who fell, rifle in hand,

    His last stand at an end?

    The thunder-lipped grey guns

    Lament him, fierce and slow,

    Where he found his dreamless bed,

    Head to head with a foe.

    The sweet lark beats on high

    For the peace of those who sleep

    In the quiet embrace of earth:

    Comrade, why do you weep?

    Prewett’s almost cruelly insistent question is of course the very one McCrae avoids, substituting reflexive militarism for an answer he dare not confront. It is also the same question we pose to our children in a national catechism every November. They deserve a better answer.

    John Barber is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @annegonian

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  13. […] Mondiale. Cette symbolique provient d’un poème écrit par le lieutenant-colonel John McCrae, Dans les champs de Flandres (In Flanders Fields), le 3 mai 1915, après l’enterrement d’un de ses amis mort au […]

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