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World War I 'Decoration Day'

Leads to Our 'Memorial Day'

And a Famous War Poem You Should Memorize


Today's Snack: Since we're going to be memorizing a poem that has to do with the beautiful, colorful flower, the poppy - even though its perky charm is found on the graves of the thousands of American soldiers who died in World War I in France - let's remember the good that war does, along with the bad, and enjoy some very good poppy-seed muffins with milk.




The United States kept out of all the wars in Europe for the first 150 years of our history, but by 1914, America was getting to be such a world power that the people decided they just couldn't stay out of the latest one.


World War I was supposed to be "The War to End All Wars," but it didn't work out that way. It got out of hand in a hurry: it started in Europe with the murders of two people . . . and ended up killing millions of people, including many Americans.


The two people were from Austria-Hungary - Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife - and the murderer was a Serbian terrorist in the city we now call Sarajevo. The Austria-Hungary government accused the government of Serbia of masterminding this crime and sought revenge. They declared war on July 28, 1914, and within days, countries lined up on either side


Almost every country in Europe participated in the war, with fighting in Europe, Asia and Africa. More than 65 million men served in the armed forces on both sides, and more than 14 million people, both soldiers and civilians, including many Americans, died in World War I.


World War I pitted Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (and later Turkey) against Great Britain, France and Russia.


During this war, the following types of weapons or equipment were developed:



Machine guns



Poison gas

High explosives

Quick-firing field artillery


Why did the U.S. enter this way? For the first three years of it, we were neutral. But then Americans started to worry that the leader of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was trying to seize power over the whole world with this war. We felt that if we didn't join the efforts to stop him, he would take us over, too.


Also, American merchant ships were supplying the British and French with food, guns, clothing and other supplies from the U.S., and the British and French were paying us for them even though we were strictly out of the war. But because we were helping their opponents, German submarines were sinking our merchant ships and even passenger ships on the way to Great Britain and France, killing our civilian seamen, which made Americans mad.


On April 6, 1917, the U.S. finally declared war. Eventually, about 2 million American soldiers were sent to Europe to help the French and British push the German army out of France. We also sent millions of tons of goods to Europe to help them, including sending shoes, clothes and food.


Finally, on Nov. 11, 1918, the war ended. Often, that truce agreement is said to have been signed at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. That's where the expression for a last-minute change comes from: "the 11th hour."


After World War I, Americans started decorating military graves on the last weekend in May, and soon that Monday was declared "Decoration Day." Over the years, the name changed to "Memorial Day" as World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Middle Eastern wars claimed more American war deaths.


But of all the remembrances of World War I, this poem is probably the most famous. It was written by a Canadian Army doctor, Lt. Col. John McCrae, who lived from 1872-1918, and treated the wounded - and buried the dead - in the bloody World War I battlefields.


He wrote this in Flanders, an area of northern France, where some of the worst fighting took place. This poem has immortalized WWI in reminding us that the beauty of wildflowers and singing larks cannot cover over the horrors of war and the deaths it cause - but if we will remember that those who died were fighting for our freedom, and pick up where they left off in defending freedom against all tyrants, then they can rest in peace.


In honor of America's generations of war dead, memorize this short and beautiful poem:



This is a poppy, which blooms in both Europe and the United States in late May.


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.


By Susan Darst Williams Americanism 07 2009




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