It now unites both Canadians and Ukrainians.
Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.
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.
This poem, written during the First World War by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae has become one of the most endearing literary tributes to the fallen heroes who died to defend our country, our lives, our families and our freedoms. McCrae was inspired to write it on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of a friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres. That battle was indeed the epitome of hell on earth.
It marked the first large-scale use of lethal poison gas. The Germans had transported liquid chlorine gas to the front in large metal canisters. With the wind blowing over the French and Canadian lines on April 22, they released the gas, which cooled to a damp mist and drifted over the battlefield in a lethal, green-yellow cloud. The gas shocked but, while some troops fled in panic, the Canadians held their ground. After several days of chaotic and brutal fighting, the Ypres position remained in Allied hands.
In a letter written to his mother, McCrae described the battle as a “nightmare”: “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
Once the conflict was over, the poppy was one of the only plants to grow on the otherwise barren battlefields. Continual bombardment disturbed the soil and brought the seeds to the surface. They were fertilized by the nitrogen in the explosives and lime from the shattered rubble of the buildings. As the fields became blanketed with the scarlet flora, the poppy came to represent the immeasurable sacrifice made by his comrades and quickly became a lasting memorial to those who died in World War One and later conflicts.
For Canada as a member of the British Empire, and all other Western Allies, World War I ended when the armistice was signed at 11 AM on November 11, 1918 – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Across the British Empire, that date became known as Armistice Day. It was celebrated in Canada by that name until 1931, when Parliament changed the name to Remembrance Day in honour of those soldiers who had died in battle.
The poppy was first used to commemorate Armistice/Remembrance Day on November 11, 1921, which makes this year its 100th anniversary. Poppies are to be worn on the left side of the chest – close to the heart –from the last Friday of October until the end of the day on November 11. By 1922, lapel-worn poppies were manufactured and distributed by veterans in Canada. The Royal Canadian Legion, formed in 1925, has run the poppy fundraising campaign in Canada ever since. Today, millions of Canadians wear the bright red emblem as a symbol of remembrance. The Poppy Campaign raises funds to support veterans and their families.
In 2015 Ukraine too adopted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. But it wasn’t a remembrance of World War I, which, for Ukraine, ended on February 9, 1918, with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Central Powers. War. However, the war didn’t end for the nascent state, which struggled unsuccessfully to establish its independence from Bolshevik Russia for another three years. For Ukraine, the poppy became not only the symbol of remembrance for World War II but an expression of its own independence from Russia. It replaced the former Russian St. George’s Ribbon. Historians say that the poppy also has a place in Ukrainian folk tradition, representing the fields of blood that the kozaks shed in defence of their homeland.
The designation of the poppy coincided with the declaration of May 8 as the date in Ukraine to mark the end of World War II, the same as Western Allies, as opposed to the previous date of May 9, which was celebrated in the Soviet Union as Victory Day. And it was on May 8, 2015 – exactly five days and 100 years after Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae penned his immortal words that the poppy was first officially enshrined as a symbol of remembrance in Ukraine. May 8 is now known as the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation because while the end of World War II may have been “Victory Day” for the Russians, for Ukrainians, all it meant was the replacement of one totalitarian dictatorship by another.
Be it for World War I or World War II, the poppy has become a symbol of remembrance for both Canada and Ukraine, uniting both our countries in revering those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of their fellow countrymen.
So, on November 11, take a moment to remember those valiant soldiers who rendered the greatest sacrifice of all in giving up their lives to save ours.
Venerate them and respect them for their valour.
And wear the poppy in their honour.