Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day to honor the soldiers who died during the Civil War, both Union and Confederate. Celebrations honoring Civil War heroes started the year after the war ended in 1865. The establishment of a public holiday was meant to unify the celebration as a national day of remembrance instead of a holiday celebrated separately by the Union and Confederate states. By the late eighteen hundreds, the holiday became known as Memorial Day so as to include the fallen of all wars fought by U.S. forces. In 1971, Memorial Day became a federal holiday.
In Flanders Fields
During the early days of the Second Battle of Ypres a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on May 2, 1915. He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as a friend of his, the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae.
As the brigade doctor, McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Helmer because the chaplain had been called away. It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, John McCrae began the draft for his now famous poem "In Flanders Fields".
According to legend, fellow soldiers retrieved the poem after McCrae, initially dissatisfied with his work, discarded it. "In Flanders Fields" was first published on December 8 of that year in the London-based magazine Punch.
It is one of the most popular and most quoted poems from the war. Its references to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers resulted in the remembrance poppy becoming one of the worlds most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict.
By 1920 at least fifty-five composers across the United States had set the poem to music, including Arthur Foote, Charles Ives, and John Philip Sousa. The poem provided composers with a means of thinking about and capturing the emotions of the War experience. Below is a recording of Heartland performing Paul Aitkin's version.
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. - John McCrae
Did any of you play Darius Milhaud's "Suite Française," in your High School Band? The composer wrote: "For a long time I have had the idea of writing a composition fit for high school purposes and this was the result. The five parts of this Suite are named after French Provinces, the very ones in which the American and Allied armies fought together with the French underground of the liberation of my country: Normandy, Brittany, Ile-de-France (of which Paris is the center), Alsace-Lorraine, and Provence (my birthplace). I used some folk tunes of these provinces. I wanted the young American to hear the popular melodies of those parts of France where their fathers and brothers fought to defeat the German invaders, who in less than seventy years have brought war, destruction, cruelty, torture, and murder, three times, to the peaceful and democratic people of France."
In 1961-1962, Benjamin Britten wrote his "War Requiem," Op. 66. It is an incredibly moving, large-scale, setting of the Requiem performed for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, the original fourteenth-century structure was destroyed in a World War II bombing raid. Britten, a pacifist, was inspired by the commission, which gave him complete freedom in deciding what to compose. He chose to set the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead interwoven with nine poems about war by the English poet Wilfred Owen. Owen, who was born in 1893, was serving as the commander of a rifle company when he was killed in France on 4 November 1918, just one week before the Armistice.
Britten set Owen's poem, "The Next War" for Tenor and Baritone in the Dies irae:
Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death, -
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland, -
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, -
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, - knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags. - Wilfred Owen