The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. . .
November 11, 1918. In a railway carriage in the Compiégne Forrest some 65 km from Paris, the first step in bringing the “war to end all wars” to conclusion became reality. Although the Armistice was signed at about 5:00 a.m., it did not go into effect until 11:00 a.m. With the announcement of the cessation of hostilities, the whole world rejoiced that the four-year nightmare known as The Great War was over. Today, Veteran’s Day or Remembrance Day is celebrated in no fewer than twenty countries around the world. In the United States, as of 1954, it is celebrated to honor the veterans of all wars. The tradition of wearing a red poppy on November 11, once so common, has lost its significance for most of us today, but a few people still wear them in their lapels to commemorate the sacrifices made by so many. It can be said with certainty that The Great War and its offshoot, World War II, changed the world forever.
Though the men of many countries, several continents, and both hemispheres ultimately fought and died, it is not unreasonable to view the genesis of World War I, at least in small part, as a sort of family feud pitting cousins George V of Great Britain and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia against their mutually disliked and distrusted cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.  After their familial matriarch Queen Victoria died in 1901, the glue that kept the extended Royal Family together dissolved. The new century arrived amidst the ever-growing sound of sabers rattling across the face of Europe as its nations grappled with shifting political situations, new social ideas, and advances in the technology of war. Treaties of mutual protection, political maneuvering, intrigue, secret alliances, and desires for power and dominance of Europe poured fuel on an already smoldering fire.
Once the firestorm of war had consumed millions in terms of people killed, resources exhausted, property destroyed, and lives ruined, it lumbered to a halt on November 11, 1918 in Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch’s railway carriage.
The words of a poem penned by Lt. Col. John McCrae, Canadian Expeditionary Force, some time after the second Battle of Ypres are among the most famous lines associated with World War I. The battle was a month long nightmare during April and May, 1915 fought for control of the strategic town of Ypres in the Flanders section of Belgium. The battle marked the first time poison gas was used on the Western Front. After burying his best friend, McCrae marked how red poppies were already blooming among and around the graves of the recently fallen – new life amidst death and destruction. It is believed he wrote his poem, at least in part, while sitting on the back of an ambulance.
In Flanders Fields and Other Poems, the collected works of John McCrae published in 1919, gives the opening lines 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.
In 1921, the American Legion began the tradition of wearing a red poppy on November 11 in remembrance of American soldiers who died in World War I (1914-1918). United Kingdom veterans’ organizations took up the tradition and most continue it today. When I was a child, members of the American Legion distributed red poppies every November 11 in every city and town. Sadly, the tradition has almost disappeared in the United States.
This post was originally published in 2014. Because Veteran’s Day was this week, I thought it was worth a second airing. Please take a moment in your busy lives to remember those who have given and who are giving so much to their country.
So tell us. Do you wear a red poppy on Veteran’s Day?
Related Historical Fiction
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.