Red poppy from field soaked in soldier’s blood

Most of us know the symbolism and history of red poppies. In 1915 John McCrae wrote a poem on his friend’s battlefield grave. The poem had a title “In Flanders Field” The first two rows of first stanza are:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,

over ensuing years the poem grew and grew in popularity. People were memorizing it, reciting, balladeers sung songs using the poem’s words. Thus the red poppy become the symbol of all war cemeteries, of soldiers fallen in the service of their country. And, because of the nature of the symbol (a delicate yet beautiful flower, early and short lived but very resilient), it become an evocative description of young, innocent lives that were lost on the battlefields all over Europe in the I world war. With time, it became a symbol of all lost soldiers in all armed conflicts.
Yet, for me the red poppy is strongly connected with another war, even more tragic and bloody and one of it’s longest and bloodied battle. Of course, I am talking about the 2 world war and about the five month long battle of Monte Cassino on the Italian Front in 1944. Another poet and songwriter-soldier wrote it (similarly as McCrae wrote his) on the ruins of Benedictine monastery atop a mountain guarding the way to Rome. The Monte Cassino. Very quickly the song become extremely popular among Polish soldiers and over the coming years one of the most popular war songs in Poland. I have no idea when I heard it first time. Safe to assume that in infancy because it seemed that I knew it for as lonb as I can remember. The song is called aptly: “The red poppies of Monte Cassino”. As Poland was reborn as an independent state (after 123 years of partition between the empires of Prussia, Russia and Austro-Hungary) on November 11 1918, that day is being observed in Poland not as day of mourning of dead soldiers but as a Day of Independence. But the celebrations, similarly as Canadian’ always begins at the foot of the Tomb of Unknown Soldier in the center of Warsaw with laying of the wreath. So, I must admit, that my first encounter with the red poppy in November was under somewhat false idea of the symbol. I was absolutely sure, although surprised, that the Canadian poppy was in memory of the battle of Monte Cassino! As an avid student of history I knew the details of that battle, and indeed, the entire Italian Front rather well. And because Canadians (alongside Polish 2 Corp under major general Anders) were a serious contributor to the Allied forces in that campaign and suffered terrible and high casualties – it seemed totally convincing that the little red flower that was covering the hills around Cassino was a symbol of Canadian military remembrance, too! Specially that Canadian I Armored Brigade and then the entire Canadian I Corp fought the Germans to capture Monte Cassino. Unsuccessfully and with high losses. As did the Brits, the Gurkhas and extremely bravely, in the first assault in January 1944, the New Zealanders. The mountain stood in the way of entire 5, 8 and 23 US Army, French Corp, Canadian I Corp and Polish 2 Corp. The battle lasted 5 months. It started in January and ended in May 18 19944, when the Polish 12 Regiment of Podolian Lancers entered the ruins of the ancient monastery and raised Polish flag there. The road to Rome was open. The Allied forces lost there over 50 000 soldiers. Historians called the battle of Monte Cassino the bloodiest battle of the entire Western Front in 2 world war. Only few days later the divisions and regiments of the 2 Polish Corp with the support of two Canadian divisions (one infantry and one armoured) smashed the German forces second line of defense. Without the Italian Front and later the capture of Rome, the invasion on Normandy would not be possible probably until the next year. War would not have ended in 1945. Nowhere during the entire 2 war world Polish and Canadian forces where fighting together as closely and in such large numbers as on the Italian Front. It is thus fitting that the tiny, timid flower might serve as a double symbol for both nations – as a poppy from Flanders Field and as a poppy from the hills around Casino in Italy. Here is my translation of the two original stanzas of the poem-song written the day after the battle of Monte Cassino.

About Bogumil P-G

publisher, essayist, poet lived (and born) in Poland, later England, Italy, presently in Canada
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