A battlefield doctor’s broken heart, poppies, and remembrance



“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…”

So began a Canadian battlefield doctor by the name of John McCrae in 1918 as he gazed with sadness across a field of red poppies blowing in a Belgian breeze atop an improvised graveyard full of U.S. and Canadian soldiers – soldiers who had just died rescuing Europe from itself for what would be the first of two times in the 20th century.

At the time Dr. McCrae wrote his famous poem, America had been suffering mind-boggling casualties in WWI. From 1916 to 1918, America lost over a 116,000 soldiers – about 16 times more than our Iraq and Afghanistan casualties combined since 911, against a much smaller U.S. population of young men. Canadians had suffered devastating losses, too.

Small wonder, then, that North Americans of that era were moved by poetry and remembrance.

In 1918, an energetic and resourceful woman named Moina Michael read Dr. McCrae’s poem in the November edition of Ladies Home Journal. She was deeply moved by it and inspired. She decided that the sacrifices made by our servicemen deserved its own national day of reflection and memorial. So she quit her job – no small thing in those days – and set out to make it happen.

Ms. Michael used the red poppies described in McCrae’s poem as a symbol of remembrance. She convinced the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars to adopt the red poppy for that purpose.

Ms. Michael’s poppy-inspired movement caught on. Red poppies became a widely revered symbol of bloodshed and remembrance. They were seen pinned to people’s lapels on days of memorial throughout the land. Similar movements caught on in other Allied nations too, from Canada to New Zealand to Europe.

Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem, Belgium

Many years later in the U.S., Ms. Michael’s efforts paid off: a hodge-podge of various state remembrance days (Decoration Day in many states) were consolidated by federal legislation into a single holiday on the last Monday of May. Her vision came true, though she didn’t live to see it.

While the practice of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day is slowly fading, the symbolism remains powerful. Dr. McCrae had just lost his best friend in battle and had personally conducted his graveside service. As he gazed across the cemetery where his friend lay, the red poppies blowing wistfully around the graves crystalized the anguish and melancholy in his heart.

McCrae’s pain is felt by all too many American families, even today. Brave young men and women, fallen in the prime of life, are still being transported home in body bags from distant lands in the Middle East. And the conflicts there show every sign of waxing for years to come, before they ever might wane.

Memorial Day has never been much about debating the wisdom of particular armed conflicts, or the lack thereof. After all, for our soldiers, theirs “is not to wonder why”; theirs “is but to do or die.”

Instead, Memorial Day gatherings often reflect a sense of gritty resolve, combined with profound appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice our fallen soldiers have made. These complex emotions were captured well in McCrae’s final verse:

“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”

As we gather for BBQs with family and friends this Memorial Day, let’s reflect on what it means for a soldier to make that profound sacrifice, to throw the torch from failing hands. Let’s express our deep appreciation for those who have, and those who yet will, give their lives in distant lands, that the raging conflicts there may be kept as far as possible from our peaceful shores.

And, if you can find one in Alaska, pin a red poppy over your heart.

Scott Hawkins is a businessman and civic leader who resides in Anchorage, AK.