U.S. Military History: Memorial Day Poppies

Ross Dunfee

World War I concluded with about 10 million military personnel killed, and a like number of civilians. One particularly bloody battle during WWI was at the Second Battle of Ypres (Belgium) where, on April 22, 1915, Germany fired 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas against two French and Algerian Divisions and two days later a Canadian Division. Some 87,000 Allied troops and 37,000 German troops were killed, wounded, or missing. Because of the substantial carnage, bodies were buried either in nearby battlefield cemeteries or mass graves.

On May 3, 1915, Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, after seeing poppies erupting from the battle-ravaged land of northern France and Flanders (northern Belgium), took 20 minutes to pen the poem In Flanders Fields (published in Punch Magazine, December 1915.) The poem gives voice to the soldiers who had been killed in battle and lay buried beneath the poppy-covered grounds. Those deceased soldiers encourage the living soldiers to keep up the fight so that the loss of their lives be not in vain.

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 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.


On Nov. 9, 1918 (two days before the Armistice), Moina Michael, a volunteer at the New York YMCA, published in the Ladies’ Home Journal a response to McCrae titled We Shall Keep the Faith.

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,

Sleep sweet—to rise anew!

We caught the torch you threw

And holding high, we keep the Faith

With All who died.


We cherish, too, the poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led;

It seems to signal to the skies

That 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

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;

We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought

In Flanders Fields.


On Jan. 28, 1918, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae died of pneumonia (results of the chlorine gas) and never heard the responsive poem of Moina Michael. Poppies were planted at his gravesite.

In September 1920, the National American Legion voted to use the poppy as the official U.S. national emblem of remembrance. Other nations soon followed suit, adopting the red poppy as the national symbol of remembrance. It is common to see the American Legion offering the poppies for a donation around Memorial Day.

SOT-AZ (Support Our Troops—Arizona) is proud to honor and remember military personnel both deceased (with flags at half-staff until noon) and living (with flags at full-staff after noon) on Memorial Day. We honor those who have sacrificed for our freedom. Visit www.sotaz.org to learn more about Support Our Troops—Arizona.