In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row... 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. (In Flanders Fields, John McCrae 1872-1918)
The vivid blood-red petals of the Flanders poppy is a striking symbol for the remembrance of those who willingly laid down their lives for freedom. In Australia it has a prominent place in our commemoration of ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day. In Northern France and Belgium during World War One, the poppy came to notice as the first plant to emerge from the blood saturated battlefields. It inspired a new legend. It was said that the vivid colour of the red poppy came from the blood of the fallen soldiers that had soaked deep into the ground.
The red poppies in Flanders fields must have left a deep impression on Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, for in 1915 he penned the poem “In Flanders Fields” and shortly after the end of World War One the red Flanders poppy became the international symbol for remembrance. In 1921 The Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League imported one million silk poppies which were sold to raise funds for their welfare work. The League eventually became known as the Returned Soldiers League (RSL) and every year they continue the tradition of selling red poppies and other merchandise to raise money for families who have lost loved ones in armed service.
The symbolism of red poppy, though, dates back even before World War One. In 19th Century English Literature the poppy was a symbol for sleep. Remember The Wizard of OZ? First published in 1900, Baum’s story about Dorothy’s adventure in OZ included a “deadly poppy field.” In this field “great clusters of scarlet poppies” emitted a “spicy scent” that could trap the unwary traveller in a never-ending sleep. Fortunately for Dorothy she has friends who carry her to safety, but the idea of sleep is closely related to death. How often do we describe the dead as those who have fallen asleep. In the aftermath of World War One the red poppy took on an even more significant meaning, irretrievably associated with the sacrifice of shed blood.
It has enormous significance for today – November 11, Remembrance Day.
Around Australia we will stop at 11am, at work, at school or at home, to hold a one minute silence to remember those who gave their lives and those who continue to suffer as a direct result of war or armed conflict. Usually we would gather at our National and Local War Memorials for a ceremony, the laying of wreaths, the last post and the eulogy for the unknown soldier. While we are not in normal times, we can still stop, wherever we are, and remember.
In Toowoomba our war memorials are located in a beautiful park in the CBD called the Mothers’ Memorial Gardens. Opposite Queens Park, it is a beautiful open area with individual memorials for each of the wars and major campaigns, as well as numerous smaller plaques. Despite being in the CBD it is surprisingly quiet and the benches scattered around provide places for quiet reflection. The memorials have been planned with care and offer a fitting memorial for those who never returned. The peaceful sound of gently falling water from the fountain adds to the contemplative ambience of the gardens. It is remarkable how memorial gardens can evoke such a reflective atmosphere for the remembrance of something so brutal and violent – the blood shed of battle.
Remembrance Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It was the day when the guns finally fell silent, at 11am on the 11th of November in 1918. On the first anniversary of Armistice Day in 1919, a ceremony was held in London which included a two minute silence. The idea of stopping and reflecting in silence was actually first suggested by an Australian journalist, Edward Honey, who was working in London at the time. The two minute silence became a popular tradition that was widely adopted in commemoration services.
After World War Two, the name of Armistice Day was changed to Remembrance Day. In this way the commemoration included the sacrifice of soldiers from all wars and armed conflicts.
1993 was the 75th anniversary of Armistice Day and the entombment of an Australian unknown soldier in the Hall of Memory marked a significant point in affirming the importance of Remembrance Day in the minds of Australians. In 1997 the Governor General of the time, Sir William Dean formally declared November 11th as Remembrance Day, encouraging Australians to observe the one minute silence at 11am.
In Toowoomba’s Memorial Gardens there is a plaque titled Mankind is One. If only we could remember that there is far more that unites us, far more that we have in common, far more that we could accomplish together. Then perhaps we will never need to erect any more memorials to our dead.
Lest We Forget.