Long before the First World War and the poem, In Flanders Fields, British historian, Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), wrote about the poppies of Flanders. “The soil fertilized by twenty thousand corpses, broke forth into millions of poppies,” he wrote.
When Macaulay penned these words in 1855, he was chronicling the Battle of Landon which took place in what is now Belgium. Flanders is in Belgium, not far from Ypres.
The Battle of Landon, July 1693, was part of the Nine Years’ War between France and an alliance of England, the Netherlands, the Austrian Habsburgs, and member countries of the Holy Roman Empire. Often called the War of the Grand Alliance, the conflict was an attempt to restrain France from realizing plans to dominate Europe.
Sixty years after Macaulay described those poppies in the fields of Flanders, Canadian doctor and poet, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872-1918) wrote, In Flanders Fields, which is said to be the world’s best-known poem.
Poppies are on all our minds these days. This isn’t only because Remembrance Day is approaching and we have long associated poppies with that day, but it is also because of the remarkable display of ceramic poppies in the dry moat surrounding the Tower of London, a display likened to, “a sea of red blood.”
The poppy display, officially called, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, was the brainchild of artist, Paul Cummins who, along with Tom Piper, fashioned each flower by hand, a process that took three days per poppy.
Eight thousand volunteers have planted these poppies, the last of which will be placed in the moat on November 11, Remembrance Day. At that time, there will be a total of 888,246 red flowers there — one for each fallen member of the British Empire in the First World War. Canadian deaths came to over 61,000. These Canadians are part of the 888,246 represented by the poppies at the Tower, since Canada was an Empire country.
The poppies were officially unveiled on August 5 of this year. When the final blossom is planted on November 11, it will mark 100 years to the day since the war ended.
An estimated four-million people will have visited the poppies by November 11, including Queen Elizabeth who came on October 16. When Elizabeth visited, she brought a wreath made of 22 red poppies — one poppy for every Empire country which fought in the Great War. The poppy has been a symbol of remembrance ever since McCrae wrote his famous poem.
John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario. He was a field surgeon in charge of a field hospital at Dannes-Camiers near Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. He died in 1918 of pneumonia and is buried in a Commonwealth War Cemetery in France.
The poppies in the moat have all been sold for the price of 25 pounds per flower. The money raised is destined for charities dedicated to British veterans, including the Royal British Legion. The sale of these flowers brought in £11.2 million.
Thousands of real poppies still bloom in Flanders, but not in November.