The 25th of April (ANZAC Day) commemorates the landing of Australian and New Zealand soldiers on the shores of Gallipoli in 1915, during the First World War. The rituals of ANZAC Day, the day on which all wars in which Australia was involved are remembered, are inculcated in Australians from their earliest school years. I have always felt alienated from the nationalism that dominates much of this tradition. But I do feel a powerful emotional response to the plight of ordinary people caught up in war.
The use of flowers and foliage to commemorate the victims of war is, for me, the most evocative symbol of the humanity that has been sacrificed. We leave the floral wreaths to fade on our memorials, in witness of personal loss, and the loss we feel as a community.
The most traditional commemorative wreath is a circle constructed from intertwined laurel leaves. It originated in Greek mythology. Apollo made a wreath in memory of his love for Daphne, who had been turned into a laurel tree by her father, to protect her from Apollo’s advances.
Red poppies and rosemary are also worn to symbolise remembrance. These plants have specific meanings which link them to mourning for those who died in war.
Since ancient times, rosemary has symbolised loyalty and remembrance in literature and folklore. It grows wild in Greece and Turkey.
Wild rosemary, Crete
The Flanders Poppy is strongly associated with the First World War in Europe. In the region around Ypres in Belgian Flanders, the spring months of April and May 1915 were unusually warm. This red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) began to grow in clusters on and around the battlefields, as seeds lying dormant in the disturbed ground, germinated. The red poppy was also blooming on the Gallipoli peninsula when the soldiers arrived in April 1915.
Very soon after the end of that war, the flowers of the Flanders Poppy became symbols of the massive loss of life.
The well-known poem In Flanders Fields was written by John McCrae on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of a soldier who had died in the Second Battle of Ypres. In my view, the first two stanzas of this poem say much that should be said about war. The third stanza seems written by a different person, for a different purpose.
In Flanders Fields
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 grow
In Flanders fields.