11/07/2010 01:37 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

'In Flanders Fields' Still Inspires Millions

In the spring of 1915, in the midst of World War I, a Canadian poet named John McCrae was serving as a field surgeon near Ypres. He noticed bright red poppies -- a classic symbol of resurrection -- sprouting up among the all-too-new and common grave sites in the region. This image, along with the recent loss of a good friend in battle, inspired him to scribble down a poem he entitled "In Flanders Fields":

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
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 grow
In Flanders fields.

In December of that year, McCrae's poem was published anonymously in the magazine Punch, and it quickly became a global sensation. Once his identity was discovered, McCrae became a household name.

Just after the war's end, McCrae's poem inspired an American named Moina Michael to write a passionate (if forgivably less accomplished) poetic response.

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,

Sleep sweet -- to rise anew!

We caught the torch you threw

And holding high, we keep the Faith

With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red

That grows on fields where valor 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 dead

In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;

We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought

In Flanders Fields.

Michael was also inspired to start selling silk poppies to raise money for wounded veterans returning from Europe. The practice spread to France and then to the U.K. in 1921, where Field Marshall Douglas Haig, president of the Royal British Legion, adopted the practice for the British Empire. The practice still flourishes today. This year, more than 400 poppy-selling stations are expected to raise millions for veterans in London alone, and more than 18 million of the flowers have been distributed throughout Canada. Many in the former British Empire refer to Remembrance Day (or Veterans Day here in the U.S.) simply as Poppy Day.

The holiday takes place this Thursday, Nov. 11. You might take a moment to read "In Flanders Fields" and to remember McCrae, who died of pneumonia while serving his country in January 1918.