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Memorial Day a reason to remember... and honor

It took a  Civil War General, a WWI Canadian Lieutenant, and a field of poppies.
The poppy is a symbol of Remembrance and hope, including hope for a positive future and peaceful world.

How did poppies come to symbolize the death of soldiers at war? Canadian Lieutenant John McCrae wrote the poem 'In Flanders Fields' which inspired the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.

In a few days, we will honor our military dead with a federally designated “Memorial Day.” Even though many will have the day off from their jobs (if their employers still believe it is in their best interest to honor the sacrifice by granting their workers a day to honor the dead in their own way), I suspect very few will follow the instructions of General John Logan who designated the holiday in 1868.


Logan, a prominent Union Civil War commander, was the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic when he made his General Order No. 11 on May 5, 1868. The proclamation was not long—not more than two pages—and began with, “The 30th day of May 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance, no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

His instructions were pretty simple—honor the graves of those “who died in the defense of their country during the late rebellion…posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services…” It was first officially observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery. New York was the first state to officially recognize the holiday five years later. By 1890, all northern states recognized the day. Most southern states refused to celebrate the day until it was after WWI when the day took on the significance of honoring the dead of any war, not just the War Between the States of 1861-865.

After Congress passed the National Holiday Act in 1971, almost every state celebrates Memorial Day on the last Monday in May. Several southern states have designated an additional day for honoring the Confederate war dead. In Texas, they do this on Jan. 19. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi celebrate on April 2, South Carolina on May 10 and Louisiana and Tennessee commemorate the day on June 3—Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ birthday.


Even though tens of thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers had perished in the first year of WWI, it was after witnessing the death of just one that inspired Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae to pen, “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.

McCrae’s hastily scribbled the lines in a notebook the day after having witnessed the death of his dear 22-year-old friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. Legend has it that McCrae didn’t care for his poem and ripped it from his notebook. A fellow officer, Francis Alexander Scrimger, rescued the poem and submitted it to Punch magazine, where it was published.

The Canadian and British public, mourning the loss of tens of thousands of its soldiers quickly embraced the poem…the image of the poppies standing in a Belgian field was a fitting metaphor for the flower of the United Kingdom’s youth who stood shoulder to shoulder against German invaders. McCrae struck a chord in the collective souls of nations.

Photo of Lt. McCrae, a Poppy and written copy of poem, In Flanders Fields

Lt. John McCrae and the poem he wrote the day after witnessing his close friend die in battle.

In 1918, University of Georgia Professor Moina Michael, who was inspired by the poem, published one of her own. “We Shall Keep the Faith” referenced McCrae’s poem in the opening lines:

“In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row…"

Moina Belle Michael planted poppies on the Health Sciences Campus at the University of Georgia.

Moina Belle Michael planted poppies on the Health Sciences Campus at the University of Georgia.

During WWI, Professor Michael had volunteered for war work with the YMCA. When she was called up for service with the Overseas YMCA War Workers in September 1918, she took a leave of absence from her position at the university and reported to the YMCA training headquarters at Columbia University, New York City.

After completing her training course, Michael's hopes of being sent abroad were dashed when she was barred from overseas service due to her age —she was 49. Dr. J W Gaines, president of the Overseas YMCA Secretaries, however, arranged for Michaels to stay with the organization by giving her a job at the training headquarters. She continued her work with the Overseas YMCA War Workers until January 1919.

The idea for the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy came to Moina Michael while she was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries' headquarters on Saturday morning, Nov. 9, 1918 (just two days before the Armistice). With everyone on duty elsewhere, Michaels found a few moments to read the November issue of the Ladies Home Journal. In it, she stumbled onto a vivid color page containing the poem, “We Shall Not Sleep” (the original title of McCrae’s poem). 

The last verse transfixed Michael: 

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.

At that moment, Michael vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war. She then penned her poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith” to confirm her commitment.

By March 1919, Michael was back at her teaching position at the University of Georgia. Witnessing thousands of ex-servicemen who were also returning to the United States, Michael realized there was a need to remember these returning soldiers in addition to those who had died in the service of their country.

Then, during the summer of 1919 when she taught a class of disabled servicemen, she had the idea to expand the wearing the poppy to include everyone in America who cared. She believed making artificial poppies and then selling them could assist all servicemen who needed help for themselves and for their dependents.

By September 1921, delegates at the Auxiliary to the American Legion Convention agreed with Michael’s idea. Under their direction, disabled American war veterans began to manufacture the poppies on a wide scale that would then be sold in the United States. The veterans would be generating much-needed income for themselves and their fellow veterans who had no other income. The American Legion Auxiliary adopted the poppy as the organization's memorial flower and pledged its use to benefit our servicemen and their families.

Bouquet of Buddy Poppies

Before Memorial Day in 1922, The VFW conducted our first poppy distribution, becoming the first veterans' organization to organize a nationwide distribution. The poppy soon was adopted as the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, as it remains today.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States was the first veteran organization to promote a nationally organized campaign for the annual distribution of poppies assembled by American disabled and needy veterans. In 1924, the VFW patented the name "Buddy Poppy" for their version of the artificial flower. All the money contributed by the public for Buddy Poppies is used in the cause of veteran’s welfare, or for the well being of their needy dependents and the orphans of veterans.

Both organizations continue the practice to this day.

Memorial Day is not about division or political agenda. It is not about increased sales or lost labor. Memorial Day is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

Preserve the Memory,
John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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