Thursday, 10 November 2011

In Flanders Fields

 At this time of the year, it is appropriate that we remember those men and women who gave their lives so that others could live in liberty. In Flanders Fields is one of the most poignant and moving poems ever written. It was written by the Canadian doctor and Artillery Major John McCrae after his good friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was killed by a German shell on 2nd May 1915,  in the second week of the Second Battle of Ypres. As the Army chaplain was absent that day on other business, it was John McCrae himself who carried out the funeral service for his good friend.

Next day, several officers saw John McCrae sitting on the rear step of  an ambulance, scribbling the poem on some paper, and looking at his friend’s grave. But, the poem almost never the saw the light of day, as McCrae discarded the poem. A fellow officer retrieved it, and it was eventually sent to The Spectator Magazine and Punch. The Spectator rejected the poem, but Punch published it. Ever since, the poem’s spell has grown and grown, just like the irrepressible poppies in Flanders fields.

Here is the poem:-

 In Flanders Fields

By John McCrae

May 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 arms we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high
And if you break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae caught pneumonia and meningitis in January 1918, and was moved to a hospital on the French coast. Before he died he whispered to the doctor treating him   ‘not to break the faith with those who die’.

 Moira Michael worked for the YMCA in America and was so inspired after reading ‘In Flanders Fields’ in 1918, that she wrote a moving reply to McCrae’s poem. It was called ‘We shall keep the Faith’.

We shall keep the Faith

Moira Michael

Oh! You who sleep in Flanders fields
Sleep sweet-to arise anew;
We caught the torch you threw;
And holding high we kept
The faith with those who died.
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valour led
It seems to signal to the skies
The 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
Wear in honour of our dead
Fear not that you died for naught
We’ve learnt the lesson that you taught
In Flanders fields.

 There were a number of other replies which formed around the themes of the poppy and the keeping of the faith, which led to the amazing spirit of the men and women of the free world, who fought for freedom amongst the most awful conditions known to man, and kept their dignity to win the war for the allies.
                                              Image from


  1. Miss Michael was hardly the only person to respond to In Flanders Fields. Looking at the surgical supplies company ad she was show in the LHJ Nov 1918, it is clear she is reacting to the American painting by Philip Lyford, and the comment ending the sidebar. Much was made of IFF in the US when it entered the was Easter 1917 - Lilliard Mitchell, Negley etc, even musical settings such as Sousa. Not clear where Moina's was published beyond her 1941 biography, not in the anthologies, just repeated in googling. These need to rounded up and dated to show the proper interpretation of passing the torch- send reinforcements, don't give up.

  2. Note the resemblance of the spring 1917 Lillard poem reproduced
    in the NY POST (nd) and the late 1918 poem by Miss Michael,
    apparently not published beyond a Y newsletter. Mr. Negley
    speaks of the need to join the fighting in Europe which his
    country soon does, the Easter weekend McCrae's Canadian
    comrades won their spurs at Vimy Ridge in France.
    The elderly lady sees it merely as a way to show herself as
    a super-patriot. The 'torch and poppy' motif refers to her
    abortive attempt to popularize a fancy logo with both images,
    even involving CEF ace pilot Billy Bishop, on a speaking tour
    down in the States February 1919, whether he realized it or not...
    The call to Canadians for battlefield reinforcements of 1915 is
    now used to promote her logo "torch and poppy red" developed with
    entrepreneur Lee Keedick.


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