World War I poems: “In Flanders Fields” & “The Answer,” 1918

A primary source by John D. McCrae, J. A. Armstrong, and Ella Jane Osborn

A page from WWI nurse Ella Osborn’s diary in which she wrote out the poem “In Flanders Fields,” July 29, 1918 (GLC06570)Ella Osborn’s 1918 diary provides insight into the experiences of an American nurse serving in France at the end of World War I. In addition to her notes about the men under her care and events in France, Osborn jotted down two popular World War I poems, “In Flanders Fields,” by Canadian surgeon Lt. Col. John D. McCrae, and “The Answer,” by Lt. J. A. Armstrong of Wisconsin.

McCrae composed “In Flanders Fields” on May 3, 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium. It was published in Punch magazine on December 8, 1915, and became one of the most popular and frequently quoted poems about the war. It was used for recruitment, in propaganda efforts, and to sell war bonds. Today the red poppy of McCrae’s poem has become a symbol for soldiers who have died in combat.

In Flanders Fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place.

“The Answer” is one of many poems written in response to “In Flanders Fields”:

Sleep peacefully, for all is well.
Your flaming torch aloft we bear,
With burning heart an oath we swear
To keep the faith to fight it through
To crush the foe, or sleep with you
     In Flanders Field

Osborn’s transcripts of the poems contain some textual differences from the published versions. Based on the ink used in the diary entries and the ink used in the verses, it appears she went back in her diary to find empty pages to include the poems.

Transcripts

[The poems as transcribed in Osborn’s diary contain some textual differences from the published versions.]

              In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place. While in the Sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Unheard, amid the guns below.
We are the dead, Short days ago
We lived, felt dawns, saw sunsets glow;
Loved and were loved – but now we lie
        In Flanders Field

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from falling hands we throw
The torch, Be yours to bear it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep tho’ poppies blow
       In Flanders Field.

 

                 The Answer –

In Flanders Field the cannon boom
And fitful flashes light the gloom;
While up above, like Eagles, fly
The fierce destroyers of the sky;
With stains the earth wherein you lie
Is redder than the poppy bloom
       In Flanders Field.

Sleep on ye brave! The shrieking shell,
The quaking trench, the startling yell,
The fury of the battle hell
Shall wake you not; for all is well.

Sleep peacefully, for all is well.
Your flaming torch aloft we bear,
With burning heart an oath we swear
To keep the faith to fight it through
To crush the foe, or sleep with you
       In Flanders Field

A transcript of Ella Osborn’s diary from July 29–30, 1918, is available here.

Questions for Discussion

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