By Karen Zautyk
To say that World War I devastated the countryside of France and Belgium would be an understatement. The trenches and the tunnels and the shells and the tanks of the 1914-18 carnage had turned the land literally un-Earthly; it was more like a vast, bare, cratered moonscape.
The website www.greatwar.co.uk quotes an American pilot, James McConnell — who in 1916 was flying with the French Lafayette Escadrille — describing the front line of the Verdun battlefield as a “brown belt, a strip of murdered Nature.”
But some of Nature had managed to survive, and as early as 1915, springtime saw red poppies starting to bloom along the Western Front. Of course, continued warfare would blast them to bits, but each spring and summer, they would return. And after the Armistice, there were fields covered in them. They became the symbol of both the rebirth of peace — and the death of millions of Allied troops.
In the U.S., it used to be — for decades after the war — that prior to every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, our vets would be out on the street corners with canisters, exchanging paper poppies for donations to veterans’ charities.
Wearing one of the flowers was a matter of pride in America and a personal tribute to our heroes and heroines from all our wars. Today, you have to hunt the poppies down.
A few years ago, with Memorial Day approaching, I stopped in a veterans’ post in one of our Observer towns (it and the post shall remain nameless). I went to the bar area and asked the relatively young bartender if there were any poppies available for purchase.
He responded with annoyance: “Puppies? Why would we be selling puppies?”
An older gentleman seated nearby glanced over and growled, “She said ‘POPPIES.’”
In any case, there weren’t any, so I left. But I hope the older vet explained the poppy tradition to the clueless barkeep, who I presume was also a veteran.
Due to that experience, and the lack of poppy-availability/awareness these days, my heart was warmed to read the following announcement in last week’s AroundTown section of The Observer: “The Harrison American Legion kicks off its annual Poppy Drive Friday, May 18. The campaign runs through Thursday, May 24. Members of both the post and ladies auxiliary will be soliciting donations around town to benefit the veterans in V.A. hospitals.”
Thank you, Harrison AL, for keeping a cherished tradition alive. (And thank you also to any other veterans’ group that will also be offering poppies. I’d name you if I knew who you were.)
The website I cited above, by the way, includes John McCrae’s classic 1915 poem, “In Flanders Fields,” which ends: “If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.” Hopefully, as generations pass, faith will not be broken.