It's a rare individual who hasn't received a red, paper flower from a veteran collecting money on Memorial Day or Veteran's Day in front of a store or at a traffic signal. In return for a monetary donation, we accept the flower, which eventually ends up crushed in our pockets or at the bottom of our purses, only to be disposed of. While the flower, a red poppy, is trivial to us, it had significant meaning to soldiers in the First World War and thereafter.
During the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium in 1915, 22 year old lieutenant, Alexis Helmer, in the 2nd Battery, 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery, became good friends with second in command Major Dr. John McCrae. On the morning of Sunday, May 2nd, 1915, Alexis left his dugout and was instantly killed by a direct hit from a German shell. His comrades gathered his remains for burial that evening in a nearby cemetery. In the absence of a chaplain, John McCrae conducted the burial ceremony, reciting passages from the Church of England's Order of Burial of the Dead and marking his friend's grave with a wooden cross. McCrae's sorrow over the death of his friend moved him to write the well known poem, “In Flanders Fields.” Time marched on. Alexis' grave, like so many of his fellow fallen soldiers throughout the ages, has been lost. Lieutenant Helmer is one of 54,986 soldiers who died but have no known burial site in Ypres.
Reports varied on how and when McCrae composed his famous poem. Some say he penned the words while reflecting upon Helmer's wooden cross marker surrounded by wild poppies; others say he wrote the poem in his “down time” between battles. The origin of the words doesn't much matter; their endurance through time and sorrow does.
Lieutenant Alexis Helmer represents every soldier who lost his/her life while bravely serving their country. He is every woman's son, every person's friend, every wife's husband, ever sweetheart's partner. Major John McCrae is every soldier's commanding officer, every comrade, every friend, every survivor who bears the tragic loss of war. This Memorial Day, let us remember them. Most especially, let us remember those who lost their lives in valiant service to the United States of America.
Next time you are handed a red, paper flower, think about its significance to the fallen and their families. That little, red poppy is a powerful thing.
In Flanders Fields by John McCrae (1915)
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.