Across Western Europe, the onset of summer heralds scarlet fields of poppies, bringing a splash of colour to every landscape, but with it, our collective association with the ultimate sacrifice made by millions who fought in World War One.
This distinctive red flower is such a potent symbol of our remembrance, and so appropriate on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme today, to mark this. Also known as the Somme Offensive, this First World War battle was fought by the armies of the British and French against the German Empire between 1 July and 18 November 1916. It was the largest battle of the War on the Western Front; more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
Scarlet corn poppies grow naturally where the earth has been disturbed and following the destruction brought by the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th Century, and again from 1914 – 1916, bare land was transformed into fields of blood red poppies, growing around the bodies of the fallen soldiers. Eerily, once conflict had ceased, the poppy was one of few plants to grow on these barren battlefields.
The significance of the poppy as a lasting memorial symbol was realised by the Canadian surgeon John McCrae in his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. The poppy came to represent the ultimate sacrifice made by his comrades and quickly became a lasting memorial to those who died in World War One and later conflicts. It was adopted by The Royal British Legion as the symbol for their Poppy Appeal, in aid of those serving in the British Armed Forces, after its formation in 1921.
The first chapter of ‘In Flanders Fields and Other Poems’, a 1919 collection of McCrae’s works, gives the text of the poem as follows:
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.
Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) was a British surrealist painter, photographer and official war artist who captured with great skill, both the timelessness and serenity of the English landscape, that was in total contrast to the iconic images of turmoil and destruction he painted during both World Wars. Read about my visit to the Wittenham Clumps, south Oxfordshire, a place he painted many times over.