In the United States we refer to the day as Veteran’s Day. My Canadian friends call it Remembrance Day. Although World War I was officially ended on June 28, 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the war formally ended “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” in 1918. Thus, Remembrance Day is observed on November 11th.
The red poppy used as the symbol of remembrance is due to the poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, of the Canadian Army. McCrae had been a doctor for years and had served in the South African Boer War, but he was unprepared for the suffering he would see on the European battlefields.
After the second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders part of Belgium, he spent seventeen days treating wounded Canadian, English, French, and even German soldiers. The Canadians had held their ground as the Germans leveled chlorine gas attacks at them. They suffered over 5,000 casualties. Later he wrote of it, “I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days… Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done.”
One death in particular affected McCrae. His friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, was killed by a shell burst on May 2, 1915. Since no chaplain was available McCrae led the funeral ceremony of his friend.
The next day McCrae wrote the poem that would become famous. One observer said of McCrae, “His face was very tired but calm as he wrote. He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave. The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.”
McCrae was not satisfied with his poem and actually threw it away, but a fellow officer rescued it and sent it in to newspapers in England. After one newspaper, The Spectator, rejected it, the poem was then published by Punch on December 8, 1915.
Sadly, while commanding No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne, Lt. Col. John McCrae died of pneumonia on January 28, 1918. In remembrance: