14th November 1999

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Today is "Remembrance Day"

Wear a poppy and honour the dead

By Capt. Shemal Fernando, SLN

In ancient Cathay, long before Marco Polo first saw its wonders and before Confucius lived to spread his philosophy of gentleness and understanding, there grew a flower from which was distilled a potent drug. It was white and known as the 'Flower of Forgetfulness.'

Centuries passed, dynasties rose and fell. Then, out of the land of the white poppy, came Genghis Khan. His ravaging hordes, as they swept westward, brought terror. Wherever they passed, men died. But something besides death they brought - it was a strange and awesome symbol in the wake of the Great Khan's blood-thirsty wars. Wherever the blood of man was spilt, the seeds of the 'Flower of Forgetfulness' put forth blooms.

But a strange transformation had taken place. The white 'Flower of Forgetfulness' had turned blood red; and in the centre of each flower was outlined a cross, as though nature herself was crying in protest at the wanton slaughter. Through the centuries, stranger events occurred. Emperors and kings marched their armies across suffering Europe in bloody conflict and everywhere, on battlefields which before had been bare, there sprang the poppy, carpeting the graves of men who had died.

It was Lord Macauley who first drew attention to this strange symbolism and it was he who first suggested that the poppy should henceforth be known as the "Flower of Sacrifice and Remembrance."

The Flanders' poppy was first described as the "Flower of Remembrance" by Colonel John McRao, who before the First World War was a well-known Professor of Medicine at McGill University, Montreal.

He had previously served as a gunner in the South African War and at the outbreak of the First World War decided to join the fighting ranks. However, the powers-that-be decided that his abilities could be used to better advantage, and so he landed in France as a medical officer with the first Canadian Army contingent.

Flanders was the region now covered by the Belgian provinces of East and West Flanders, the French Department of Nord and part of the Dutch province of Zeeland. Thousands of soldiers who died at the battlefront in France were buried there.

At the second Battle of Ypres in 1915, when in charge of a small first-aid post during a lull in the action, Colonel McRao wrote, in pencil, on a page torn from his despatch book:

'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
In Flanders' Fields.

In January 1918, Colonel McRao was brought on a stretcher to one of the big hospitals on the Channel coast of France. On the third evening he was wheeled to the balcony of his room to look over the sea towards the cliffs of Dover. The verses were obviously in his mind, for he told the doctor who was in charge of his case:

"Tell them this, if ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep."

The same night Colonel McRao died. He was interred in a beautiful cemetery on rising ground above Wimereux, from where the cliffs of Dover are easily visible on sunny days. American Moina Michael had read the poem and was greatly impressed particularly by the last verse. The wearing of a poppy appeared to her to be the way to keep faith and she wrote the reply;

Oh! You who sleep in
Flanders' Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise
We caught the torch
you threw
and holding high we
The faith with those
who died.
We cherish too, the
Poppy red
That grows on fields
Where valour led
it seems to signal to
the skies
That blood of heroes
never dies.
But lends a lustre to
the red
Of the flower that
blooms above the
In Flanders' Fields.
And now the torch and
Poppy red
Wear in honour of
our dead.
Fear not that ye have
died for naught;
We've learned the"
lesson that ye taught
in Flanders' Fields.
Remembrance Day

On November 11, 1918, came the ceasefire. It was the end of the First World War, a war which had cost the then British Empire many millions of dead and its allies and enemy many millions more. November 11 was adopted as the 'Day of Remembrance' for the fallen in that war and every day in the years between the First and Second World Wars.

At the close of the Second World War, November 11 became the "Day of Remembrance" for the dead of both wars. For many years afterwards, Armistice Day was observed on the 11th but now it is known as 'Remembrance Sunday', and is held always on the Sunday nearest the 11th. As Sri Lanka was a colony under the British during the World Wars and many of our countrymen had been serving in the local and British regiments we have observed "Remembrance Day" to honour of our fallen servicemen.


The Red Poppy of Flanders is now considered the symbol of "Remembrance", particularly by Commonwealth countries. The annual requirement of poppies for 'Remembrance Week' in Sri Lanka is donated to the Sri Lanka Ex-Services Association (SLESA) at a request made through the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League by the Royal British Legion. This year the cost of the donated poppies was £ 18,576. To coincide with 'Remembrance Day' SLESA declared a "Remembrance Week" from November 8.

The proceeds from the sale of artificial poppy flowers will be utilised for the wellbeing of Sri Lankan ex-servicemen and families of the patriotic service personnel who have made the supreme sacrifice. The national ceremony to mark the 81st Remembrance Day will be held today at the Cenotaph, Vihara Maha Devi Park, Colombo. Wear a poppy and honour the fallen.

"They sacrifice their lives today for your tomorrow."

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