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Designated in the eighth century a small territory around Bruges; Flanders became the name of the country bounded by the North Sea, the Scheldt, and the Canche; in the fifteenth century it was even used by the Italians and the Spaniards as the synonym for the Low Countries; to-day Flanders belongs for the most part to Belgium, comprising the provinces of East Flanders and West Flanders. A part of it, known as French Flanders, has gone to France, and another small portion to Holland.

In Flanders Fields is the name of an American War Cemetery in Flanders. This burial place, near the village of Waregem, has taken its name from McCrae’s poem. The bronze foot of the flag-staff is decorated with daisies and poppies. It is ancient battleground. For centuries the fields of Flanders have been soaked with blood.

John McCrae’s poem may be the most famous one of the Great War. Although he had been a doctor for years and had served in the South African War, it was impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams, and the blood here, and Major John McCrae had seen and heard enough in his dressing station to last him a lifetime.

It had been an ordeal that he had hardly thought possible. McCrae later 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 particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former student, Lieut. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on 2 May 1915. Lieutenant Helmer was buried later that night in the little cemetery outside McCrae’s dressing station, and McCrae had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain. This had happened in complete darkness, as for security reasons it was forbidden to make light.

The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station beside the Yser Canal, just a few hundred yards north of Ypres, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. In the nearby cemetery (called ‘Essex Farm’), McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up from the ditches and the graves, and he spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook.

In fact, it was very nearly not published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. The Spectator, in London, rejected it, but Punch published it on 8 December 1915. The basis for the poppies sold by American veterans each Memorial Day is McCrae’s poem.

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.