In Flanders Fields

On November 11th, the Feast of St. Martin of Tours is celebrated. Sulpicius Severus, who wrote the biography of the fourth-century monk, notes the time young Martin was returning from military exercises, wearing armor, simple cloak and sword. A beggar asked for Martin's help in the freezing cold; Martin cut his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar.

In November, 1917, in the 11th hour of the 11th day, guns stopped, soldiers stood down, and leaders inked a peace treaty. Soon President Wilson declared November 11th as holiday, Armistice Day, a time to honor World War I veterans. Later this name was changed to Veterans Day, to honor soldiers from all wars.


During World War I, a Canadian doctor wrote a poem in honor of the men--many who were young, even in their teens, who died in the battles in France. In these graveyards, something peculiar occurred--many flowers bloomed. Was it the interaction of the soil with the decomposing remains of the soldiers? These red poppies represented both transubstantiation and resurrection:


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.


There were Jesuit chaplains who died in the Flanders Fields. Thirty-one members of the Irish Province served in World War I; four died in combat. French Jesuits perished in these same fields. On November 11, 1914, a Jesuit chaplain offered the sacrament of penance:

Father Humbert, who knew his regiment was to attack the next day, spoke to his penitent of reliance on Providence and submission to the will of God. "Never," he added, "did I understand as I do now these words of the Gloria: 'tu solus omnipotens.'" On the morning of the 11th, he gave his battalion a general absolution, and a little later was shot through the head.

An antiphon from the Feast of St. Martin of Tours recalls this saint and all Veteran saints of November 11th: "What a splendid man, whom neither toil nor death could conquer! Martin did not fear to die, nor did he refuse to live."

William Van Ornum

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
David Cruz-Uribe
7 years 5 months ago
Bill, a simple "David" will do:  I am a third order Franciscan, so neither a priest or a brother.

Bill Mazzella
7 years 5 months ago
There are at least two problems with Martin of Tours. Despite Martin's disavowal of the military life the Christian church became more militaristic as it began to resemble the empire more than the Apostles. Second, the bishops exploited him so much so that so many of them claimed to have the true body of Martin. Even Augustine who saw the problem with such veneration succumbed to it as there was  a great wave in this direction. This time was the beginning of the creation of the Holy Man so much so that
it became more Christian, as it were, to venerate the saints, rather than to live a gospel life. As more and more people became Christians, more and more people disavowed the gospel life. What was more popular was the veneration of saints than the living of the saintly life.

Vatican II attempted to correct this by stating that all were called to holiness. Not a privileged few. In our own day when we continue the visits to shrines we perpetuate this
unwise practice. Compostela has become big business as people come back awed by the experience without any improvement in their lives. The whole Compostela saga is built around St James or Santiago being a warrior rather than a saint.
David Cruz-Uribe
7 years 5 months ago
The poem is beautiful in its way, but I have real problems with the fnal verse, which valorizes a war of imperial powers in which governments on both sides fed an entire generation into a meat grinder for four bloody years.  On this sad occasion I prefer to reflect upon Wilfred Owen's poignant "Dulce et decorum est:"

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Martin Gallagher
7 years 5 months ago
Thanks for the remembrance, William.
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
Dear Bill Mazzella:

Thank you for the historical information. best, bill
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
Dear Father/Brother David:

I, too, am familiar with the poem you cited and read it in high school. Today I prefer to let the Veterans have the last word. their deeds, spilled blood, and early deaths being a stronger statement than anything we can write in pixels and words on blogs. There will be many other days to debate the justices or injustices of past conflicts, doing so from safe and secure abodes made possible for us by the sacrifices of others, but let us today remember brave men and women who wrote with their lives and deaths. bill
Marie Rehbein
7 years 5 months ago
In my experience, those who have been in battle are the most persuasive voices against war, and their numbers are not negligible.  We honored them today at school, and they were being honored at the new Veteran's park in town, but we did not honor them for making themselves available to those who would engage in wars of enrichment or dominance.  We honored them for their role in defending freedom.
Jim McCrea
7 years 5 months ago
To give full credit, "In Flanders Field" was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918).
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
Dear Marie, Jim, Lori, Crystal, Vince, David, and Norm:

Thank you all for reading the blog and postings and for your commentary and information. A tough subject to write about. best and amdg, bill 
lori ranner
7 years 5 months ago
Er, has no one noticed that World War I in fact ended in 1918, not 1917, as stated in the article?
7 years 5 months ago
My grandfather was career military and my father was in the army too.  It's strange to want to appreciate the efforts people make in the nilitary, while still being a pacifist and thinking war is wrong, but that's whaere I am.
Vince Killoran
7 years 5 months ago
I heard "Flanders Field" recited to me as child in honor of a  grandfather who served in the Canadian army in WWI.  But the Owen poem is much better.  Several years ago Penguin published a book of WWI poems that I go back to every now and again to remind myself what the war was a sad, useless carnage.  
7 years 5 months ago
oh, speaking of antu-war poems by veterens, here's one from Siegfried Sassoon , British army, WWI ....

Suicide in the Trenches

I knew a simple soldier boy.....
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
And no one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

 Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 18. (CNS/Paul Haring)
The appointments are part of an ongoing effort to give a greater role to women in the work of the Roman Curia offices, the central administration of the Catholic church.
Gerard O’ConnellApril 21, 2018
Ivette Escobar, a student at Central American University in San Salvador, helps finish a rug in honor of the victims in the 1989 murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter on the UCA campus, part of the 25th anniversary commemoration of the Jesuit martyrs in 2014. (CNS photo/Edgardo Ayala) 
A human rights attorney in the United States believes that the upcoming canonization of Blessed Oscar Romero in October has been a factor in a decision to revisit the 1989 Jesuit massacre at the University of Central America.
Kevin ClarkeApril 20, 2018
Journalists photograph the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in California in 2010. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
In California, Catholic opponents of the death penalty are trying to protect the largest population of inmates awaiting execution in the Western Hemisphere.
Jim McDermottApril 20, 2018
Photo: the Hank Center at Loyola University Chicago
Bishop McElroy said that Catholics must embrace “the virtues of solidarity, compassion, integrity, hope and peace-building.”