Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872-1918) wrote In Flanders Fields in May 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres in western Belgium, where he was serving as Brigade Surgeon and Major, and second in command of the 1st Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery. The poem was initially published in the British satirical magazine Punch on Dec. 8, 1915, and quickly became widely known. In due course, it provided the impetus for the transformation of the red poppy into a token of remembrance of those who died in the First World War, and then subsequent conflicts. The presence of the scarlet corn poppies that inspired the poem at Ypres in 1915 stems from the fact poppies are among the first plants to grow when the Earth has been disturbed, a phenomenon observed on other battlefields in western Europe during the previous century.
At first glance, In Flanders Fields may seem very simple and straightforward, but this is deceptive. In structure, it is a rondeau, a French verse form that requires great skill on account of its stringent requirements; it must consist of three stanzas based on two rhymes only, and the last lines of the second and third stanzas (where a third rhyme is permitted) must repeat the opening words of the first line.
Two aspects of the poem are frequently misunderstood: “poppies blow” does not mean they are being ruffled by a breeze but that they are in bloom; and the logic of the final statement by the collective voice of the “Dead” – “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders Fields” – turns on the fact before the poppy became a token of remembrance it was traditionally used as a symbol of sleep.
* * *
In Flanders fields
By Lt.-Col. John McCrae
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.