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World War I poem lives on with poppy campaign

| Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, 8:53 p.m.
Colorized post-World War I postcard promoting Poppy Day.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress
Colorized post-World War I postcard promoting Poppy Day.
A woman places a poppy among hundreds of others alongside a makeshift memorial to the 42 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier following Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa Saturday, Nov. 11,  2006.
The Canadian Press
A woman places a poppy among hundreds of others alongside a makeshift memorial to the 42 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier following Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa Saturday, Nov. 11, 2006.

Spring arrived early in Belgium in 1915. By May, scarlet poppies were in full bloom amid the blood washed trenches of World War I.

The flowers were a splash of hope against the bleakest of landscapes. A Canadian physician was so moved by the sight that he was inspired to write the poem “Flanders Fields.”

Lt. Col. John McCrae of Ontario had been treating wounded soldiers in the Allied trenches in Ypres for almost a year when his close friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed.

It's believed that McCrae wrote “Flanders Fields” in memory of Helmer. After it was published in Punch magazine in 1915, the poem became an anthem in honor of the millions of soldiers who perished in “the war to end all wars.”

Poppies still ‘bloom'

The red poppies continue to bloom today, a century later, thanks to the inspiration of a Georgia woman. Moina Michael had moved north to New York City to work for the war effort when she read “Flanders Fields” on Nov. 9, 1918, two days before an armistice was signed to end the hostilities.

According to several historians, when she read the poem Michael thought she heard the voices of World War I soldiers calling out to her. She dashed to a nearby department store, bought a bunch of poppies, and handed them out one-by-one in memory of those who had fallen on the battlefield.

People were so accepting that Michael wrote to her congressman asking to make the poppy a national symbol of military honor. He forwarded the information to the War Department.

In 1919, Michael moved home and went back to her job as a teacher at the University of Georgia — and she got busy with her poppy campaign. That same year, the American Legion was founded by U.S. veterans to support those who served in Europe during World War I.

Michael took her cause to the Georgia Department of the American Legion in 1920, which endorsed her idea — and sent it on to the National American Legion. In September 1920, the national organization agreed to use the Flanders Fields memorial poppy as the U.S. emblem of remembrance.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars followed, starting the Buddy Poppy program in 1922. The name was trademarked two years later.

Annually, both veterans organizations distribute millions of tiny, artificial poppies, typically around Memorial Day and Veterans Day, which was called Armistice Day — in honor of World War I — until 1954. A nominal donation is collected for the poppies, which are assembled by disabled veterans. All proceeds benefit veterans and veterans programs, including the VWF's National Home for Children in southern Michigan. Poppies are also distributed overseas in memory of World War I, especially in France, England and Australia.

Local area generous

In Connellsville, VFW Post 21's Ladies Auxiliary has participated in the Buddy Poppy program for more than half a century. Longtime auxiliary member Nancy Allen moved from Uniontown to Connellsville in 1954.

“The VFW auxiliary was handling the poppy program back then,” she said.

For many years, the VFW Auxiliary and American Legion Post 301 Auxiliary handed out poppies: the VFW on Veterans Day in November and the American Legion Auxiliary on Memorial Day in May. The Legion's poppy campaign went by the wayside in recent years — and the VFW auxiliary has opted to conduct its program on Memorial Day only, starting in 2014.

Allen said the number of volunteers has dwindled as members have grown older, although the group has a solid core of at least a dozen women. “We're no spring chickens,” Allen pointed out, adding, “and November can be a cold month to be standing outside all day.”

The auxiliary hopes its May campaign will have a healthy bottom line — which it will, if the public's participation is anything like it has been in past years. “Even though times are tough today, people are always generous,” Allen said. “We ask ‘Buy a poppy for our veterans?' and people really give.” The donation is rarely less than $1, and many times a $5 or $10 bill shows up in the collection box, she added.

The group is planning its Memorial Day event in advance, so expect to see red poppies for sale in May outside of Shop and Save, Valley Dairy, Hometown Diner, Pechin's and outside New Haven Hose Co.'s Thursday bingo.

The outpouring of generosity would make Lt. Col. John McCrae happy if he knew that his poem has benefited disabled veterans worldwide. Unfortunately, he passed away from pneumonia in January 1918, before Moina Michael had even read “Flanders Field.”

Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.

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