Thanks to the Canadian poet John McCrae, the association between blood-red poppies and battlefields is widely assumed to be a legacy of the first World War. In fact, even in “Flanders Fields”, where he famously observed the phenomenon, the metaphor is centuries older than that.
It was noticed as far back as the aftermath of the Battle of Landen (1693), an event now largely forgotten here although it had major Irish resonances. A Flemish episode of the Nine Years' War – the same war that had visited the Boyne and Aughrim – it was where Patrick Sarsfield breathed his last, dying in the service of France with the reported words: "Oh, that this were for Ireland. "
The battle might have done for King Billy too, whose Anglo-Dutch forces were routed. His narrow escape is mentioned in Tristram Shandy, the great comic novel by Clonmel-born Laurence Sterne, who credits the heroics of three generals, "Wyndham, Lumley, and Galway", in covering the monarch's retreat.
“Galway” was the Earl of Galway, who was wounded and taken prisoner by the French.
But he also managed to escape because, despite his title, and reflecting the confused loyalties of the period, he was French too.
Sterne, typically, has a pair of battle veterans, Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim, discussing such fine points of war as which is the worse place to get wounded: the knee (Trim's experience) or the "groin" (Toby's). Toby argues strongly for the groin. And the complications of his injury to that sensitive region are an important sub-plot in the book.
But getting back to actual battle, there was nothing funny about it for those involved. It was the war’s bloodiest, with 27,000 men going the same way as Sarsfield. Thus, when the Jacobite Duke of Perth visited the site the following summer, it was still a grim spectacle. He reported (with eccentric spelling) “heads and bones of limbs, skellets of horses, old hatts, shoes, holsters, sadles, &c. here and there over the field”. But he also noticed the proliferation of corn-poppies, and drew an obvious comparison: “The ground that’s cultivated has two stalks of that popie which you call cock-poses for one of grain; and where it is lying untilled a scarlet sheet is not of a deeper dye nor seems more smooth [...], as if last year’s blood had taken root and appeared this year in flowers.”
It must have been this account that historian Thomas Macaulay, writing in 1855, had in mind when describing how a year after the Battle of Landen, "the soil, fertilised by twenty thousand corpses, broke forth into millions of poppies".
Macauley continued: “The traveller who, on the road from Saint Tron to Tirlemont, saw that vast sheet of rich scarlet spreading from Landen to Neerwinden, could hardly help fancying that the figurative prediction of the Hebrew prophet [Isaiah 26:21] was literally accomplished, that the earth was disclosing her blood and refusing the cover the slain.”
For 20th-century readers, however, it was McCrae, an army surgeon, who immortalised the connection, in the process providing the basis for the British Legion’s annual poppy appeal, which generates so much funds and controversy.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row” begins the poem for which he is exclusively remembered. But the elegiac note is misleading, because unlike the Duke of Perth, or Macaulay, or even the prophet Isaiah, McCrae was not chiefly concerned with the horrors of war.
On the contrary, his keynote was the final verse, which would have delighted the heart of the most jingoistic recruiting sergeant: “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.”
That was in keeping with McCrae’s world-view, at least in 1915 when the poem was published to great popularity.
Despite being a medical officer, he had revelled in the company of Canadian artillery and complained when transferred to hospital duty that “goddamn doctors” would not win the war, only “more and more fighting men”.
His verse must have persuaded many to enlist, although it could not have been written three years later, after the slaughters of the Somme and Passchendaele had sapped the moral certainties of all but the most myopic. In any case, having encouraged others to pay the ultimate price, McCrae too joined the fallen eventually, albeit not from any war wound.
He died on the western front at Boulogne, from pneumonia, 100 years ago tomorrow.