After visiting the Trenches of Death in Diksmuide the horror of this war won't leave my head and heart. An ode to those who lost their lives
Why Poppies for Remembrance Day?
Red Poppies for Remembrance day is related to the events that took place during the World War 1 (1914 - 1918) in the South-West area of Flanders in Belgium, known as the Yser region.
I'm not pretending in any way to be a historian and I'm not giving you a full report of what happened in WW1 and why. I'll just try to give you a little insight of why red poppies are forever connected to this small part of our big world and why the Red Poppy has become a worldwide symbol for the WW1 Remembrance Day.
World War I In Belgium 1914-1918
Before I moved to Zeeuws-Vlaanderen which is part of the province Zeeland in The Netherlands, I didn't know much about the World War I. However, driving through Northern Belgium (I live right on the border), I came across these many War Cemeteries in the region of the city of Diksmuide in West Flanders, which is known as the Yser Region (IJzerstreek in Dutch) and I got curious as to why there were so many of them in a rather small area.
Of course I should've known from my history classes at school, but somehow those facts had been stashed away in some dark corner of my brain as so many facts, that seemed not so relevant at the time you learn about them in school.
I did some research and found out that this region had played a key role in the first World War. The Germans were marching to France and Belgium was in their way so to speak. The Germans thought they could pass through easily but that was not the case. This War is also known as the Trench Warfare.
The South-West of Belgian - the West Corner
The West Corner (Westhoek in Dutch) Region includes the districts of Diksmuide, Ypres and Veurne in Belgium and runs all the way across the French Border (French West Corner) to Dunkirk.
The River Yser Frontline
Important Scene of a War That Should Never Be Forgotten
The river the Yser (IJzer in Dutch), which originates in the French West Corner and runs through Diksmuide to Nieuwport where it flows into the sea, has been a well guarded frontline during the first years in WW1. For the Germans, who thought they could march victoriously through Belgium, the fierce resistance in the Ardennes and the West Corner was a major setback.
Diksmuide fell in November 1914, but with the help of the French and British soldiers, the Germans never succeeded to conquer that small last part of Belgium.
Photo credit lower photo: I was very pleased to get permission to use a few photos from this site World War 1 Locations (written in Dutch) by Willem Brouwer.
Flooding the Land
In order to accomplish a big obstacle for the Germans, the Belgians in the West Corner had flooded their land after the first three months of the war, between Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide. They had opened the sluices at Nieuwpoort and the level in the river rose high enough to overflow the dykes, which made it very hard for the Germans to cross over and march through.
As the Northern part of Belgium lies below sea level (just as The Netherlands) the Flanders people opened the gates and flooded the land to make it very difficult for the Germans to march forward in high speed.
A War for Which the Belgian Army Was Not Prepared at All
It was October, start of the cold season, when this war started. The Belgians had build trenches along the river Yser from Diksmuide to Nieuwpoort at the North Sea Canal. These trenches weren't deep and safe enough to be able to walk through them standing up straight and not get your head shot off by the Germans across the river. So they had to walk bended over. Also the sleeping quarters had low ceilings and no windows or doors. You had to crawl in and lay down on the dirt. Building good and reasonable comfortable trenches was not their first priority.
Translation from the Dutch Wikipedia: In the British and French trenches during the first World War, the building of shelters was more or less discouraged, as a result of which most of the soldiers had nothing more than a hole of about 1 meter deep, dug out in the side of the trench.
Not being prepared at all for a war that would last 4 years, the soldiers were lacking of good and warm uniforms, blankets and everything else that would've been required for a long stay in those trenches. Winters came and went and nothing changed. Those poor men must have suffered terribly in the cold winters without proper clothing, food, water and what more.
The land behind the trenches had been flooded to the height of watery swamps where all the garbage, urine, faces and dead soldiers found their last resting place. One sure could call this place Hell.
They build long wooden paths over the water to the nearest dry land and all supplies, beverages, clothing, guns (if there were any) had to be transported over those small wooden paths, through winter, through summer and through more winters again and again.
70+ Million Soldiers Recruted, Including 60 Million Civilians, 9 Million Soldiers Were Killed
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae 1872 - 1918
You see, there was this Canadian Military Doctor, who also was a Poet. His name was John McCrae. Why would a Canadian doctor be serving in the British Army you ask? Well in 1914, Canada was still a Dominion in the British Empire and as England had declared War to Germany in 1914, also Canadian men had to enlist as soldiers in the British Army. So that's why Lieutenant John McCrae ended up in the Flanders Fields in Belgium.
One day, after he had buried his friend Lieutenant Alex Helmer, he wrote this poem about the man who died and lay buried in the fields around Diksmuide. Those fields were covered with blooming red poppies in summer, due to the fact that poppies are actually pioneer plants who love to grow on fresh worked on soil. The soil in Flanders Fields got ruffled up each time they had to bury the thousands and thousands of soldiers, Belgians, French, British, Canadians and Germans.
His poem became the most famous poem ever written about the World War 1 in the Fields of Flanders in Belgium.
In Flanders Fields - the Song
Preservation and Reconstruction of the Frontline near Diksmuide
Close to Duinkerken the Germans succeeded in 1916 to cross the river Ysel, but didn't get much farther than digging themselves in on the banks of the river about 60 meters (65 yards) from the Belgian detached post.
After the war this part remained and got preserved and restored and turned into an outdoor museum, to show visitors how the life of the soldiers had been during WW1. I've been there two times and each time I got goose pimples on my arms, because even while seeing it with my own eyes, I just couldn't imagine for a bit in what kind of hell these soldiers must have lived.
Standing up straight was as much as asking for your death penalty. Only a few lucky ones had a mattress. They mostly lived outside through summer and winter.
Red Poppy - Symbol of Remembrance Day
Red poppies originally stand for the blood spilled in Flanders Fields.
In 1918 the YWCA worker Moina Michael wrote a poem We shall keep the Faith, which was inspired by John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields and she promised to always wear a red artificial poppy to remember the dead soldiers. She handed them out on a conference of War Secretaries and eventually the red poppy became the symbol of those who fell for freedom in the commonwealth countries.
November 11 is Remembrance Day in many countries.
When Politics Mix with Remembrance
At first the tower was build by an organization of Flemish soldiers, right after the World War I had ended. This tower was blown up by dynamite in the night of 15 and 16 November 1946. A few years later a new tower was build, higher than the old one. With the remains of the old tower, a monumental arch was build, known today as the Pax Gate or the Gate of Peace.
Actually the Yser tower was build and is rebuild as a monument for the Flemish emancipation, which 'battle' is still being fought up till this day.
The Tower symbolizes the demand of 'Never again War' which words are inscribed in four languages in the tower.
Remembrance Day - Jour de l'Armistice 2018
This year - November 11, 2018 - will be the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. The armistice was signed in the little French Village of Compiègne. It was the end of one of the most gruesome wars in history in which 8.5 million people lost their lives.
Lest we forget.
© 2013 Titia Geertman
Stephanie from Canada on July 03, 2014:
I grew up hearing In Flander's Field every year. It was really interesting seeing the photos of the real place. I went to school in John McCrae's hometown and it's still on my bucket list to get see his house. Great lens!
drcarl on April 09, 2013:
surfing around, I see kids on a tour of the trenches, smiling and being kids. How wonderful that they have no clue. I wonder where I may have smiled inappropriately. I find it so sad how man can be so mean to fellow man. Still, there is beauty. I'll spread some poppy seeds today. Thanks.
anonymous on March 05, 2013:
Congratulations on getting a Purple Star for this lovely lens Titia :)
Terry Lomax from Rep. of Ireland on February 24, 2013:
As an ex Royal Navy man I lay a wreath of poppies at war memorials whenever I am visiting one, wherever in the world it may be. I have come across pink poppies, and I have some blue poppy seeds I intend to plant this year.
suepogson on February 21, 2013:
This was so moving.
GimperBee LM on February 20, 2013:
History had never been my strong point, but you made the story so interesting! Thank you! :)
Titia Geertman (author) from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands on February 19, 2013:
@lesliesinclair: Well congrats on your wings, I'm very honored, thank you so much. Now go spread your wings some more, lots of excellent articles to bless here on Squidoo.
lesliesinclair on February 18, 2013:
I'm a brand new Squid Angel and gave this lens my first-ever Blessing.
Takkhis on February 18, 2013:
What a nice lens! Wow, i am just amazed....Blessed :)
Titia Geertman (author) from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands on February 18, 2013:
@ManipledMutineer: Well, if you ever decided to visit the Trenches of Death, let me know, it's only one hour from my house.
Country Sunshine from Texas on February 18, 2013:
A truly wonderful article not only on the poppies, but on WWI. So many people today know nothing about the war, much less the people who fought there. A great tribute! **Blessed**
getmoreinfo on February 18, 2013:
Thanks for the information on Red Poppies and congrats on being selected for the Red Contest.
ManipledMutineer on February 18, 2013:
An excellent lens, well written - my only comment would be that in the section "The Trenches of Death", "discouraged" would probably be a better alternative to "disheartened"; British and French (and, no doubt, Belgian) troops were not encouraged to build shelters as their focus was supposed to be on offensive action and forcing the Germans off Franco-Belgian soil; thus their trenches were supposed to be 'temporary'! This lens has reignited my desire to visit the preserved trenches at Dixmunde, as I have done with those on the Somme and around Ypres. Even though I have an example of the Yser/Ijzer Medal, awarded to Belgian troops for participation in the first crucial battles of the race to the North Sea, I hadn't associated that with the "Trenches of Death", so now I have all the more reason to visit!
Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on February 18, 2013:
World War I vets used to sell their artificial red poppies for a penny every Memorial Day when I was a child, and it always came with a tiny copy of the poem, "In Flanders Field the Poppies Blow," but I had completely forgotten about that and the connection to World War I. Thank you for the reminder, and for sharing the horrors of war, lest any of us forget, in this day of unmanned killing drones, what it means to the lives on the ground.
My grandfather was a WWI vet, and I know the war changed him. The last time I saw him, he brought out a small wooden box and showed it to we older grandchildren. It contained his medals, along with a few other mementos of the war and of a life lived quietly ever after, despite a vibrant wife and a household of eight rambunctious children. I wish I had been less preoccupied with boys and being a teenager and had paid more attention to this exceedingly rare gift of his trying to share some of the most important moments of his life with us.
Vikki from US on February 18, 2013:
Beautiful and informative; I learned so much here today. Thanks so much ;) And that little poppy growing out from underneath the rocks is gorgeous. #blessed
aquarian_insight on February 18, 2013:
I always wear a poppy and here you explain exactly why! A wealth of information here - thank you. *Blessed*
victoriuh on February 18, 2013:
Wonderful lens. I have always wanted to visit there. Blessings.
Loretta Livingstone from Chilterns, UK. on February 18, 2013:
A very beautiful lens. One that brings a tear to my eye.
PinkstonePictures from Miami Beach, FL on February 17, 2013:
Wonderful emotional lens. Fantastic
Jo-Jackson on February 17, 2013:
Lovely lens. I really enjoyed reading it. I have linked to it from my gardening lens on Red Poppies.
BeyondRoses on February 16, 2013:
I know why the Poppies are Red, but did not know all of the history. You presented it lovingly. I remember from childhood, my Daddy, always wearing a red poppy when they were sold at Veterans Day. He was in the first World War.
Lorelei Cohen from Canada on February 16, 2013:
Titia as is always your style you have covered your topic completely and totally. Your version of why the poppies are red is informative, emotional, and beautiful. It is a delight to read.
Tjoedhilde on February 16, 2013:
I have been wondering about this, but never taken the time to research why red poppies is the symbol so thank you for creating this article.
jolou on February 16, 2013:
This is beautifully written and moving to read. Most of us wear poppies at Remembrance Day in Canada. To be honest, I didnt' know the whole history of Flanders but I do now. blessed.
kindoak on February 14, 2013:
Hej Titia. I heard stories from relatives (now long dead) about the horrors of the trench wars. I think the WW1 ground fighting was such a abomination that many people have erased it from their memories.
Thanks for making a fantastic lens!
AshleysCorner on February 14, 2013:
Really nice lens Titia!
Stuwaha on February 14, 2013:
Fabulous lens from a content perspective :) I love the poppy dividers as well.
Carol Fisher from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK on February 14, 2013:
I found this page very moving. Here in the UK, in the weeks running up to Remembrance Sunday in November, most of us wear a special artificial red poppy to commemorate the war dead. They are sold by the British Legion, an organisation that provides help and care for injured men and women of the army, navy and air force.
seosmm on February 14, 2013:
Another beautiful lens Titia. Great job!