What happened on May 26, 2017? Do you know? I didn’t until I began doing research for this week’s blog post. But something very special happened on May 26, 2017, and we all need to know about it.
Today is Memorial Day here in America. It is a national holiday, a time we take to recognize and acknowledge those who had worn the U.S. uniform and died for their country. It’s a time for us, the ordinary citizens, to express gratitude to those who have served this nation so that you and I can enjoy our liberty.
This year Memorial Day is May 29th. Yet, something significant happened on the 26th that correlates poignantly. And it involves you and me.
Friday, May 26, 2017, was the first inauguration of National Poppy Day. The American Legion pushed Congress to designate the Friday before Memorial Day as National Poppy Day, a day to remind people of the importance of paying respect and giving honor to those who have died serving their country and to those who are still among the living who have worn and still do wear the uniform. In essence, it’s a day fully devoted to reminding people why Memorial Day is a national holiday in the first place. It’s a day- two full days before Memorial Day- that allows the common citizen a chance to make a deliberate effort to honor our men and women in arms. It’s a ‘remember the day’ invitation, if you will.
I’m sure you’ve all encountered a veteran passing out little paper poppies with a scrap of paper wound around the green wire stem declaring, ‘In Memoriam.’ But why the poppy?
The tradition was born on the war torn battle field of Ypres (pronunciation), Belgium during World War I.
In the spring of 1915, German forces launched an extremely successful offensive against the Allied forces. Today this battle is known as the Second Battle of Ypres. It’s remembered particularly as the battle where the Germans used lethal chlorine gas for the first time. (Chlorine gas poisoned upon inhalation, causing asphyxiation.) On the first day of the battle- April 22nd- the Germans dropped 5,700 canisters with over 168 tons of chlorine gas.
The noxious gas carried over No Man’s Land, over the scarred and barren landscape- the mines, the barbed wire, the bomb craters- before bellowing into the trenches where the Allied forces lived. Covering roughly four miles of trenches, the gas affected 10,000 men on the front lines, and within ten minutes of inhaling the poison into their lungs, more than half those men were dead. On the first day. By the end of the battle on the 25th of May, 69,000 Allied forces were dead (59,000 British, 10,000 Algerian), more than half the casualties suffered by the Germans in the same battle.
But what does that have to do with poppies, you may be asking. Patience, my darlings.
On May 2nd, Major John McCrae, a medical officer for the 1st Brigade CFA (Canadian Field Artillery), watched his close friend and former school chum, Alexis Helmer, die, a casualty of a German shell. In the black of night, with no light to guide, Helmer was buried in Essex Farm Cemetery. No Chaplain was available, so the task fell to McCrae to speak the final words over his friend.
The next day, seated solemnly in the back of a waiting ambulance at a dressing station, McCrae composed a handful of lines to try and express the sorrow and grief he contended with at the loss of his brother in arms. Known the world throughout as In Flanders Field, McCrae’s cathartic poem We Shall Not Sleep expressed eloquently and truthfully the horror of what he saw when he lifted his gaze from his crumpled page to the field where thousands of soldiers were buried. Makeshift crosses marked their graves. And, in between those crosses, red poppies bloomed.
Like that shot heard round the world, McCrae’s hastily written poem (pictured to the right) resonated through the ranks, eventually finding voice, if you will, as the anthem of the fallen soldier. After all, the last verse is a marshaling cry to the living from beyond the grave.
And that marshaling cry was heard loud and clear years later. On November 9th, 1918, a mere two days before the Armistice, Moina Michael, a teacher from Good Hope, Georgia, sat at her desk in Hamilton Hall at Columbia University, NYC. A volunteer for the Overseas Y.M.C.A. War Workers, Michael was on duty for the 25th Conference for the Overseas Y.M.C.A. War Secretaries. A young soldier had left a copy of the November issue of the Ladies Home Journal on her desk. In the quiet, she opened the magazine and began to read.
She had read We Shall Not Sleep before, but on that morning, in the quiet of Hamilton Hall, she was struck on an intrinsic level by the call of the fallen soldier: 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…
Immediately, she felt the impetus to write down her own response, her declaration, her vow. On the back of a yellowed envelope, she hurriedly scrawled her answer, the poem: We Shall Keep Faith (pictured below).
But that was not enough. Her being had been touched too deeply. Mere words could not suffice. She went out and scoured New York City for a shop where she could purchase poppies. Finally, in Wanamaker’s, she found 25 silk poppies. She bought them quickly and returned to her desk where she told the delegates from the Conference about her resolve to always wear a poppy in her coat collar. The delegates were so enthusiastic, they asked for poppies to wear. Keeping only one for her herself, she gave the rest away.
Her vow on that day was the beginning. In December 1918, she began a campaign- at her own expense- to have the poppy recognized as the national memorial symbol. She started by writing her congressman, imploring him to contact the War Office. By 1920, with little traction achieved, Michael's hope was dwindling that the Memorial Poppy would ever come to fruition. But in the summer of that year, the Georgia chapter of the American Legion- a newly former organization for the purpose of veterans helping veterans- met in Atlanta. Prior to their convening, Michael approached each of the delegates and put her Memorial Poppy idea to them. The idea was embraced heartily. In fact, in September of the same year, the National American Legion convened their convention in Cleveland and voted to make the Flanders Field Memorial Poppy the national symbol of remembrance for the United States. To this day, it is just that. The symbol of remembrance.
One woman. One ordinary woman. A citizen, just like you, just like me. Someone who looked at the men and women who represented her on the battlefield, who remembered the men and women who never came home again, and decided that they needed to be remembered forever. Fear not that ye have died for naught; We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought In Flanders Fields.
Memorial Day is the day we honor those who have and continue to serve. But on National Poppy Day, we ourselves are called to action. We, the people. We, the ordinary citizen. We are called to remember why we honor these men and women.
So, as you go about your day today, whether to BBQs or other shindigs of celebration for the freedom that we have, bring a bouquet of poppies and tell the story of how the stirrings of one woman’s heart affected a movement that still impacts today. Tell her story. Let people know that even the simplest act can change the world. Tell a serviceman/woman how much you appreciate their service. Their sacrifices are countless and their struggles are real (even when they return home; perhaps, especially when they return home). Just as Moina understood that fateful November day: WE MUST NEVER FORGET.