Standing at the Essex Farm memorial to the army surgeon Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, the seventy young people in our party gathered around the tablet on which were inscribed the words of McCrae’s most famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” On an earth bank above Essex Farm Cemetery, two poppies grew among a cluster of wild flowers.
Behind the memorial still stand the concrete bunkers which formed the accommodation for the dressing station that McCrae commanded. In the calm and cleanliness of a Twenty-First Century July summer afternoon, it is impossible to imagine the scenes of wartime. Half dug into the surrounding ground, concrete roofs and walls at least eighteen inches thick, the dressing station was meant to be a place of refuge, safety from the battle at the frontline. Small, dark enclosed spaces with none of the amenities that would be assumed to exist in a hospital, even a century ago, would have not created a sense of security, nor would the screams of the wounded and dying who were brought there for treatment.
Perhaps beauty will always find a place among horror, there were poets who found inspiration for their lines among the mud and the blood. The work of Owen and Sassoon and Thomas, and other writers, is still in print a hundred years later. McCrae was a poet as well as a surgeon and a soldier. “In Flanders Fields” was among a collection of poems he wrote and his poem is credited with having created the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.
Talking to the students, I spoke about how poppy seeds might lie in the ground for decades and how the upheaval of war brought the poppies to life. One of the students read the words of the poem, and I told them that when they wore a poppy they would always remember this place.
Having always been told that the association between poppies and war began with the trench warfare of 1914-1918, it was a surprise to discover the tradition is much longer.
Writing in 1855, the British historian Macaulay described the landscape that was encountered in the summer after the Battle of Landen in 1693,
“The next summer the soil, fertilised by twenty thousand corpses, broke forth into millions of poppies. The traveller who, on the road from Saint Tron to Tirlemont, saw that vast sheet of rich scarlet spreading from Landen to Neerwinden, could hardly help fancying that the figurative prediction of the Hebrew prophet was literally accomplished, that the earth was disclosing her blood, and refusing to cover the slain.”
Poppies so profuse that they resembled a fulfilment of the words of Isaiah Chapter 26 Verse 21 would capture a sense of the horror that John McCrae encountered.