November 11 is Veteran’s Day, where the United States honors the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. I say United States, because for much of the world, November 11 is more akin to Memorial Day, where the dead are remembered. In Europe, Armistice Day is solemn occasion, marked by moments of silence and the ubiquitous paper poppies, which are sold to benefit veteran’s charities.
Armistice Day dates back to World War I when the armistice was signed in 1918, in Compiegne, France, between the Allies and the German forces to cease hostilities on the Western Front. Although the armistice was signed at 5:45 a.m., the ceasefire was to take effect at 11 a.m. — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, as every English school kid is taught. In reality, shelling continued until nightfall, and the armistice had to be extended several times as the sides negotiated a peace agreement which was not official until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 29, 1919.
The first Armistice Day celebration was held at Buckingham Palace on Nov. 10, 1919, and included two minutes of silence, one minute to remember the dead and one minute for those left behind. Official ceremonies in England take place on the nearest Sunday to Nov. 11, or Remembrance Sunday. The change came about in 1939 so the ceremonies would not hinder wartime production.
The leaders of the major political parties and various royals gather in London at the Cenotaph, the equivalent of the tomb of the unknown soldier, to lay wreaths of poppies. It is a solemn occasion, and the party leaders can be harshly judged if they do not have the right degree of gravitas. In 1981, Labor Party leader Michael Foot wore a donkey jacket (a working man’s coat), and his credibility took a hit from which he never really recovered.
So, what’s with all the poppies? From October on, one can’t go anywhere in England without seeing them. The red paper flowers are in every buttonhole and woe betide any public figure seen without one, for their patriotism will immediately be called into question. Professional sports team have special jerseys with a poppy front and center (above the corporate sponsor’s logo, even). Poppy sellers flood the streets like Salvation Army bell ringers at Christmas. When I was kid, a penny donation would get you a poppy and they were sold at school.
Actually, the poppy is an interesting symbol, one that is wholly appropriate for the specific time and place of WWI. They first came to the public consciousness through the poem, “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian doctor Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae who was at the second battle of Ypres in Belgium, where poisonous chlorine gas was used by the Germans for the first time. The battle, which lasted from April 22 to May 25, was one of the deadliest of the war, with 56,000 British casualties (including 6,500 Canadians), 18,000 French and 36,000 Germans.
Following the funeral of a friend, McCrae noticed how fast the poppies grew up around the graves and wrote “In Flanders Fields” on May 3:
In Flanders fields, the poppiesblow 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.
Although legend has it that McRae was dissatisfied with the poem and threw it away only for it to be retrieved by a fellow officer, the poem was published on Dec. 8, 1915, in Punch magazine and immediately captured the public’s imagination. Unfortunately, McCrae, weakened by the stresses of war, died of pneumonia in 1918.
When one thinks the Flanders fields now, one imagines large swaths of land beautifully carpeted with the red flowers. In fact, before the war poppies were not that prevalent as the soil was not conducive to the plant. Their growth was a direct result of the carnage of war. The continuous shelling churned up the soil exposing the poppy seeds, and the nitrogen in the armaments, along with the lime from the buildings reduced to rubble, provided the perfect fertilizer.
And we should not forget the other main nutrient — the decaying remains of thousands of men and horses.
World War I was dubbed “the war to end all wars,” and the poppy was adopted as a reminder of the horror of conflict. Of course, 20 years later everyone forgot and the whole thing kicked off again. C’est la vie.
This story first ran in the Nov. 11, 2022 Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.