WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2011 – Until the 1960s, veterans groups used the red poppy as the symbol of Veterans Day. In Great Britain, it still is.
The symbol comes from a poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian doctor John M. McCrae in 1915.
The first two verses of McCrae’s three-verse poem read:
“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.”
McCrae tended to the first victims of a German chemical attack on the British line at the Belgian town of Ypres during World War I.
The fields of Flanders, where some of the most horrific battles occurred, are now dotted with cemeteries filled with the war dead. If you fly across France and Belgium, you can still see the remains of the trench systems of the war.
The Great War of 1914 to 1918, called the first modern global conflict, was an enormous divide for the world. Millions of service members died in the conflict. Millions more civilians were also killed or died of disease.
It truly was a world war. Troops fought in Turkey, the Balkans, East Africa and the Middle East as well as in Russia and France. The war caused the Russian czar to fall and allowed Vladimir Lenin to build what would become the Soviet Union.
On Nov. 11, 1918, that war came to an end. At 11 a.m. the shooting stopped. A war that saw 20,000 British “Tommies” die in 20 minutes at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, was over. The war that saw 1,384,000 French “poilus” die, ended in the trenches that extended from Switzerland to the Belgian coast. Americans, who joined the war in 1917, lost more than 100,000 soldiers in the fighting.
The Germans had signed an armistice with the allies and to the generations of The Great War, Nov. 11 remains Armistice Day. For decades, veterans sold paper poppies to raise money for memorials and for the families of those who died in the war.
But The Great War was not, as President Woodrow Wilson hoped, “the war to end all wars.” World War II rose from its ashes, and millions more died to stop the mad dreams of dictators from 1939 to 1945. The U.S. Congress changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day to honor all veterans after more blood was spilled during the Korean conflict to halt aggression.
Congress moved Veterans Day, along with most other federal holidays, to be celebrated on the closest Monday to the traditional date. But soon Congress reversed itself on Veterans Day because of public pressure to honor the powerful symbolism of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
This year, national observance of “11-11-11,” will include a presidential wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery and ceremonies around the country.
Along with two world wars and Korea, Americans and their allies have fought and died in Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places.
Today, the United States’ armed forces confront enemies around the world. U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen defend freedom on station wherever, whenever they are called.
Those serving today are ensuring that they do not ignore the final verse of McCrae’s poem:
“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling 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.”
Editor’s Note: This is a slightly revised version of a story initial published by the American Forces Press Service in 2005.