Holy Week Poetry 2016, Holy Saturday: “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae

When I was in England for a summer I took a class on World War I and Modernism. We crossed the English Channel and visited some of the former battlefields in France. In several places the land had been completely deformed, and you can still see where shells carved out divots in the countryside (see below). I remember looking at a beautiful spread of grass with sheep grazing on it and all these scars of a war that had happened 100 years earlier.

France battlefield


Thiepval Memorial by Commonwealth Graves commission
Thiepval Memorial, photo by Commonwealth Graves Commision

One of the sites I most remember is the Thiepval Memorial commemorating the Battle of the Somme. One hundred years ago from July 1 to November 18, 1916 the Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in human history. It saw over 1,000,000 casualties in this single battle; more than 60,000 soldiers died on the first day of battle alone. I remember looking up into the proportionally very high arches inside the memorial, thinking of how one scholar had described it as a giant, hollowed-out scream.


Tyne Cot Memorial Ypres
Tyne Cot Memorial at Ypres, where John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields.” Photo by Paul Arps.

Our professor had us memorize a few poems from WWI, and when we went to war graveyards, I was glad I had today’s poem to mull in my head as I walked through the crosses. It’s “Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. The red poppies mentioned in the poem grew on these same fields and became the popular symbol of remembering the fallen. Incidentally, those poppies are more likely some of the flowers being referred to in the Sermon on the Mount, “Consider the lilies of the field.” Poppies grow more natively in the fields of the Holy Land than lilies do.


Today on Holy Saturday, these are the dead.


In Flanders Fields
by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army
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.


poppies by hennasabel

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