By Teresa Slack
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row”
Those two lines are the start of what was one of the most famous poems of the first half of the 20th century. It was “In Flanders Fields,” by John McCrae, a Canadian physician turned lieutenant colonel who found himself not saving a life, but burying the body of a young soldier in May 1915. Looking across the war-torn field, he was inspired by the hundreds of poppies adorning the graves of the fallen soldiers.
McCrae’s words were tragic and beautiful and forgotten, except to historians or people with extremely long memories. There is a group trying to change that. It is called Remember Old Hickory, and our goal is to honor the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. But why now, and why Greenville?
The 30th Infantry Division broke the Hindenburg line in 1918, which led to the end of World War I.
The Old Hickory Division, as the 30th was known, trained at Camp Sevier in Greenville and included hundreds of local soldiers as well as men from the rest of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee. While Camp Sevier was only part of Greenville for less than two years, it has created a lasting impact on our community. The men who served in the Old Hickory came back home and built Greenville during its first great boom of the 1920s. They were there when the Poinsett Hotel was built. They worked in the mills that shaped our communities. They toiled on farms that kept families fed.
And they never forgot what they saw in World War I.
Many fallen soldiers were buried in this same area. Soon after burial, the poppies would push through the ground and adorn the graves of the hundreds of soldiers laid to rest. That is what inspired McCrae’s writings.
The inspiration drawn from this resilient flower did not stop there. On Nov. 9, 1918, as the war was coming to an end, an American teacher named Moina Michael read the poem and pledged to always wear a red poppy in remembrance. She responded by writing a poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” proclaiming that she would make sure that the sacrifices of these soldiers were never forgotten.
After a group asked her if they could purchase a poppy, she realized that selling these poppies could be a way to raise money for those who suffered in the war. Soon nicknamed the “Poppy Lady,” Michael joined forces with Madame Anna Guèrin, who became known as the “French Poppy Lady.” They worked together for many years, promoting the poppy in the United States and Europe as a symbol of remembrance for those who fought.
In 1921, Guerin reached out to Field Marshal Earl Haig, founder and president of The British Legion, who ordered 9 million poppies, to be sold on Armistice Day, Nov. 11. This event became known as the first Poppy Appeal, with proceeds going to aid veterans in Europe.
Because many people believed that WWI was the “War to End All Wars,” Nov. 11 was originally named Armistice Day. Several wars later, our world celebrates this day as Veterans Day. In Europe, however, this day is still celebrated with poppy-blanketed castles and hillsides, in remembrance of those who fought bravely, suffered, and died in all wars.
Greenville is adopting this tradition to honor the brave soldiers of Camp Sevier. This campaign is sponsored by the City of Greenville, Greenville County, and Upstate Warrior Solution.
As poppies begin to appear all over Greenville in the next few months — this time as metal pins worn by local law enforcement officers, elected officials, and everyone else — remember to honor the extremely important part these brave men played in bringing World War I to an end.
And since I started with McCrae, let me end with how he ended his poem all those years ago:
“If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
Teresa Slack is a historian and researcher and part of the Remember Old Hickory project team. Learn more at www.rememberold1918.com.