May 3, 1915 Keeping 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.”. – Moina Michael

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Dr. John McCrae

John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of the “Great War” in 1914, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41.

Based on his age and training, Dr. McCrae could have joined the medical corps, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer.

McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This was to be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

Dr. McCrae fought in one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched the first mass chemical attack in history at Ypres, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed in an apocalyptic bloodletting lasting more than two full weeks.

Dr. McCrae later described the ordeal, in a letter to his mother:

“For seventeen days and seventeen nights”, he wrote, “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”.

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Stop and imagine for a moment please, what this looked like, what this horror smelled like, in color.

Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of friend on May 3, fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. McCrae performed the burial service himself when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. Sitting in the back of a medical field ambulance just north of Ypres, he composed this poem, the following day.  He called the verse, “We Shall Not Sleep”. 

Today we remember Dr. McCrae’s work as:

In Flanders Fields

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.

Moina Michael

Moina Belle Michael was born August 15, 1869 near Good Hope Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. She began teaching at age fifteen. Over a long career Michael worked in nearly every part of the Peach State’s education system.

In 1918 she was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the November Ladies Home Journal Moina came across Dr. McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918. 

Two days before the armistice.

John McCrae lay in his own grave by this time, having succumbed to pneumonia while serving in the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, in Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat, due to the sandy, unstable soil.

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Michael had seen McCrae’s poem before but it got to her this time, especially that last part:

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

Moina was so moved she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy, in honor of the dead. She scribbled a response, an ode to an act of remembrance on the back, of a used envelope.  She called it:

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 luster 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.

The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life brought about by the Great War, the “War to End all Wars”. Before they had numbers, this was a war where the death toll from many single day’s fighting exceeded that of every war of the preceding century, military and civilian, combined.

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A century and more has come and gone since the events, told in this story. The red poppy is now an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance, lest we neglect to remember the lives lost in All wars. I keep one always, pinned to the visor of my car. It’s a reminder of where we come from, the prices paid to bring us to this place and to always keep the faith, with those who have come before.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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