What does a poppy field mean to you?Yesterday I posted a photo of a poppy field taken last month. I was completely shocked and then fascinated to read a comment that fields of poppies always bring to mind The Wizard of Oz. I have to confess that I'd never noticed there were poppies in the film!
For me, and probably for most Brits, poppies are inextricably tied to the Flanders Fields of World War One. The poppy is the symbol of our Remembrance Day commemorations and we buy replicas in the weeks running up to 11th November to wear as a sign of recognition and respect for the millions who gave their lives so trustingly.
I've always been fascinated by many aspects of history, but this particular conflict has drawn me to it for several reasons. I studied Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth" and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Graves in 6th form as a very impressionable 16 and 17 year-old and have never shaken off their power.
My maternal grandmother, born in London in 1908, told vivid stories of sleeping in Underground stations as shelters, of school friends being killed in the little-remembered bombing that took place, and most heartbreakingly of all, hearing the bells ring out in celebration of victory at 11am on 11th November 1918 as she was on her way to buy a remembrance card for her uncle and 2 year-old cousin who were to be buried that day, victims of the Spanish flu pandemic which she and her mother both survived.
My great-grandfather was killed in Perrone, France, on 20 September 1918, only a matter of weeks after his arrival there and left a widow and two young sons, the eldest of whom was my grandfather, then aged 8 and shown here on the left.
I visited Flanders myself aged 18 seeing the remnants of trenches, massive bomb craters, the bullet-scarred buildings and tree trunks which still stand, and graveyard after graveyard along every road. I was almost overwhelmed by the remembrance ceremoney at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. Missed only during the German occupation in WWII, at 8pm every night since 1928 the road is closed, everyone stops and the local fire brigade play the Last Post to commemorate the thousands of soldiers with no known graves who are listed on the walls and surfaces of the Gate. The atmosphere was electric and the lump in my throat unbearable.
And then we Brits are lucky enough to have another reminder too. I don't know if the Blackadder sitcoms were ever transmitted in the US, but you're missing an absolute masterpiece if not. Starring Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and others, the final series Blackadder Goes Forth, was set in a WWI trench and portrayed the lunacy of daily life there. The final scene of the last episode, "Goodbyeee..." was instantly hailed as a moment of television genius and continues to win critical accolades and viewers polls twenty years on. It had no closing titles, simply fading from the protagonists charging across no man's land under fire, to a field of poppies in the sunlight, a reference to the poem "In Flanders Fields". The music was also changed to a slow, echoey solo piano arrangement, finishing with three strong bass-drum notes, interposed with sound effects of gunshot, and later birdsong.
Watch that last scene here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ba-64h6d6Q
So this was what I thought of as I rounded the corner on a sunny June afternoon...
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.
- Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872 - 1918)