In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Canadian Unknown Soldier, The Great War, Tynecote Cemetery
As delicate as they appear, corn poppies are an enduring flower. Scattered randomly by the wind, their seeds flourish in freshly turned soil, often turning just-ploughed fields into unexpected seas of crimson. In the shell-shocked and grave-ridden landscapes of Flanders during World War I, those seas became oceans of sudden beauty across the morass of sodden wasteland.
That the blood-red poppy should become such a significant symbol of remembrance is thanks only in part to John McCrae's famous poem, In Flanders Fields.
The Poppy Women
It was, in fact an American woman, Moina Michael, who responded to McCrae's clarion call to keep the faith; she conceived the poppy movement. Ironically, poppies never caught on in the United States, but like the seed the idea scattered and took hold overseas. First in war-torn France where Madam Guerin started to hand-make poppies to raise money for war orphans and destitute women, and then to the British Foreign Legion who adopted, evolved, and have now mentored the concept for almost 100 years.
Poppies at Menin Gate, Ypres, Flanders
The Poppies of Flanders
Nowhere is this better seen than at The Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium where, every night, you can participate in, or simply witness The Last Call ceremony, one of the most poignant daily acts of Remembrance.
The Last Post, Menin Gate, Ypres, Flanders
Ypres witnessed some of the Great War's bloodiest battles and was razed to rubble twice, after The Great War (WWI) and World War II. Its rebuild however, was so carefully executed the authenticity of its historic charm belies that truth.
Located at the city gate nearest to the Front, the Menin Gate Memorial is a barrel-vaulted mausoleum where the names of 54,986 Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found, are etched into the marble walls. The names of the remaining 34,984 missing are remembered at Tynecote Cemetery although in both cases, those lists are constantly changing. Even today, human remains continue to be unearthed. Each receives a proper burial in one of the region's many war cemeteries of the various nations that fought during 1914-1918. If the remains can be identified, the relevant name is removed from the Menin Gate walls and from Tynecote.
Canadian War Memorial, St. Julien, Flanders
In Ypres, poppies proliferate year round-woven into wreaths, crosses and bouquets of gratitude that are placed beneath the Gate's triumphant arch, and in its rooftop garden.
Here, every night, bugles sound out the Last Post. Here, the act of Remembrance is honoured by anyone who wishes either as onlooker or participant, and is where veterans and children alike lay wreaths for fallen comrades, the infirm, family members, causes and charities. It is a generosity of spirit that makes the Last Post such a moving and personal experience.
The Last Post Buglers, Menin Gate
Although attendance dwindled as veterans died, McCrae's words have touched the hearts of younger generations. What attracted only a handful of people a decade ago has grown to include more than a hundred almost every day come snow, sleet and rain. And at 11am, November 11, Remembrance Day, the crowds swell to crush capacity and usually include members of the British and Belgium royal families. November 11 is the only time when poppies fall from the Gate's vaulted ceiling in their thousands, commemorating the more than 10 million military personnel who died during what is widely considered the deadliest conflict in human history.
Menin Gate Hall of Memory
"The War to End All Wars" The scale of World War I is hard to grasp. It was the first mechanized war and as such, the total of military and civilian casualties were devastating; some counts estimate nearly 16 million. Crude weaponry, gas attacks (mustard gas was first used near Ypres) and arrogant orders that sent young men, armed only with bayonets and rifles and barely old enough to shave, over the top, losses quickly compounded.
Conditions, too, were ravaging. The fields of battle had been flooded to slow the German advance through Belgium so the landscape was a body rotting, rat infested quagmire where dysentery, disease and trench foot were rampant. And for soldiers who buckled to the environment, Field Punishment Number 1 was to be tied to a gun-wheel and put on a bread and water diet!
Poppy strewn grave of Canadian soldier, Tynecote Cemetery
As much as The Great War - the "war to end all wars" annihilated our ignorance of fighting glory it was also where Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand forged their nationhood. The April 1917 battle for Vimy Ridge in France will forever be the Canadian triumph; and as the late Pierre Burton noted, the defining point of national identity that was fused with courage, spirit and determination.
John McCrae's bunker in Flanders Fields is equal testament to those values and perhaps, even more than that. Like the poppies he describes, his poem speaks to an enduring and persistent hope. Lest we forget, wear your poppy with pride and gratitude.
Ypres town centre-new historic authenticity
PHOTOS by Chris McBeath
1. Canadian Unknown Soldier, The Great War, Tynecote Cemetery
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