We Tend the Fields




By Michelle J. Howard

In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row…

So starts the popular poem from World War One.  In May 1915, Canadian Doctor John McCrae had lost his friend to an artillery shell.  Colonel McCrae substituted in the absence of a Chaplain at his friend’s memorial.  It’s said he wrote the short poem, In Flanders Fields, in just a few hours, the morning after the memorial service.

Some have commented about the act of writing something so powerful in such a short timeframe.  I marvel that someone in combat, found a few hours of peace, and was able to focus, and write.  I think about those poppies blooming between the crosses.  They had to be staring hard at Doctor McCrae.  He had to of turn his back on them,

I’m sure, to carve out the steadiness of mind to honor his friend with a few words.

The poppies of his poem came to represent the war itself, and all who were lost.

Countries around the world, have used the poppy as a symbol of remembrance during the 100 Novembers since the Great War.  We frequently think of World War One in terms of the casualties and the awful death.  In this country, it meant the mobilization of 4 Million Military Men.  And of those, over 116,000 would die for the idea of liberty and the idea that liberty is a right of all citizens.

These Men were brave, and they gave their all.  But today, I want to talk other brave participants.  Others who served with courage and ardor.   The Women of World War I.  If the men, are the poppies, of McCrae’s poem.  The women have their metaphor as well.   The larks, the birds, who witness the war because they are a part of the battle field.   McCrae wrote,

“The larks, still bravely singing, fly,

scarce heard amid the guns below.”

The Women of World War One.  So many of them, bravely singing, but the guns of that war were so loud, so present, we can scarce hear the echo of their voices today.

The Women.  They were there, in the war.  On the battlefront, in the field hospitals.  The Women.  They were there, in the war, clerks, radio operators, and translators for the military.  They were there in the war, estimates of 5000 women volunteers across Europe, trying to serve in any capacity that was allowed.  [And perhaps because they are women], in a couple cases in capacities that they chose, even if it wasn’t allowed.

The first voice scarcely heard in this country, was Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin. She was elected to the House of Representatives from the State of Montana in 1916. An extraordinary political feat as women didn’t achieve the right to vote until 1920.  Congresswoman Rankin was not only a suffragette and but a life-long pacifist.  Shortly after taking her seat, President Woodrow Wilson asked the Congress to declare war on Germany, in response to Germany’s declaration of unrestricted warfare on all Atlantic shipping.  Congresswoman Rankin cast one of the fifty house votes in opposition.  She said, “I wish to stand for my country, but I cannot vote for war.”

She was singled out and criticized for her stance.  I admire her strength of character to hold true to her beliefs.  But she is just one woman whose voice comes to us faintly from the past.

In the U.S. Military, the recognition of value of women in medicine occurred as the 18th century became the 19th century.  The Army adopted a Nurse Auxiliary in 1901.  They were not reserves or enlisted.  They held no military rank.  They were paid less then men, and they had no retirement plan or benefits.  Despite the inequalities, the passion to help others, was purpose enough for many women to join the Army.  The Navy started their own Nurse Corps in 1908.

By the time the United States joined the Great War, the Nurses numbers were small.   Around 400 in the Army and 160 in the Navy. By war’s end over 22,000 Nurses would serve, their work important, and necessary, but scarce remembered as the centuries of guns have been loud.

These Nurses, like the larks, were bravely singing.  They not only cared for the wounded but had a far more lethal enemy to face than the soldiers on the battlefields.  Influenza.  From the National Archives, its estimated World War I claimed an around 16 million lives. The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.

During the epidemic, at least ten U.S. Navy nurses died as a result of aiding the afflicted and three of them would be awarded a posthumous Navy Cross.  Of the 38 Army Nurses who remain buried overseas, most of them perished from the flu.

The larks that remain unknown are the women who bravely sung here at home.  The war effort had taken most of the doctors away.  It remained mostly for the women to care for their families and take care of the ill.  This virus was different.  Young adults, not normally impacted by these types of infectious diseases, were among the hardest hit groups, along with the elderly and young children.

The flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population.   As a result, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years.

As some women tended hearth and home, others supported the war effort more directly.  Once the guns of August were sounded, the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, knew that the war would come and that America would have to get involved.  As the battle for control of the Atlantic waged between the United Kingdom and Germany, he knew he would need more ships and more men.   He wanted to free up every male Sailor for the fight.

He turned to his legal counsel and asked, “Is there any law that says a yeoman must be a man?” It was a smart question.  The Secretary had to know that women had proven themselves in the American workplace.  The feminization of the business world had started with the late 1800s.  When Philo Remington invented his typewriter in 1873 he hired women to demonstrate the new invention.

Women dominated communications.  Bell telephone just after the turn of the century, had over 37 thousand women on the switchboard as compared to 2500 men.    The Secretary of the Navy recognized this little tapped talent, women, could ably manage the clerical duties for the Navy while he put male Sailors to sea.

To the Secretary’s satisfaction, the law was ambiguous to the gender of Sailors. The new kind of reservist, the Yeoman Female, Yeomen F for short, was created in March of 1917.  The Yeomanettes, as they were nicknamed, served with pride.  They took over administrative duties and as the war continued contributed to a myriad of non-combat missions from camouflage design to recruiting.

So much for the slogan, “Gee, if I was a man, I’d join the Navy.”  The Yeomanettes could tell potential Sailors, I’m a woman and I serve, and so can you!  By the war’s end over Eleven thousand Yeomanettes had bravely sung their songs.

As I think of these larks and wonder why their voices are so distant as compared to the men, I have to acknowledge, it was a different America during the Great War.  The role of women was evolving.

Indeed, the war, and the outbreak of a deadly flu were catalysts for change.   Despite these factors, the Secretary of the War, Newton Baker, was adamant in his refusal to create the Soldier version of the Yeomanette.  Despite continuous requests from his field commanders, he stood firm. General Pershing asked for 100 women switchboard operators in uniform.  He received contracted support.  Finally, the Secretary relented and allowed commands stateside to hire civilian women to perform clerical work in U.S. domestic camps.  Afraid of their impact on the soldiers, the regulations said the women had to have “careful supervision” and must be “of mature age and high moral character.”  Regardless of the additional restrictions, I’ve no doubt, these woman of high moral character, served with joy, and bravely sang their songs. They were helping win the war.

The ceasefire and armistice was declared on 11 November 2018.   Colonel McCrae had managed to survive a few more years after the creation of his poem, dying in January 1918.  He did not live to see the War end, and the peace begin.  He died, while the fight was still on.   By 1918, the poppies in the fields were seen by the thousands of American women who volunteered to serve overseas.  Many of them, singing so bravely, that they received the French Guerre de Croix as recognition.  John McCrae’s poem was published and well known at that point.

Perhaps as a foreshadow of his own mortality, he reminds us in the final stanzas,

“Take up our quarrel with the foe!

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold high!

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.”


He lived long enough to know that the torch also was carried by the women of World War I.  They the torch high, and kept faith with mankind, and womenkind.  If the dead sleep peacefully, it is because the women, the larks, sang bravely.

The larks’ song has been muted by the passing of time over a hundred years.  We are here today, to remember their contributions, and pray that they too sleep undisturbed as the poppies grow.

I have wondered that the masculine voice and perspective of John McCrae was not matched by a Nurse or woman volunteer who saw the poppies bloom between crosses from Belgium to Serbia.  They were not passive observers. Their lives were bursting with tasks as they fulfilled their various roles in support of the War.

I think these women were so busy, they had no time to record their thoughts on the guns of war and friends lost.  I felt, I could best honor the women of World War I by giving them a voice.   In response to Colonel McCrae’s heartfelt poem of loss and duty, I provide to you, a poem for the women who tended to others in the Great War.

We Tend the Fields

We tend the fields.  We watch the harvest.

We stand in grace near rows of scarlet.

Ours is to hold the hands of boys

Listen to past sorrow and joys.

And whispers of regret as their last solace.

We leave the dead, to raise the living.

Mourn the men, we nursed, held, and buried.

Left lying;

In fields we tended with all our being.

We’ll think our lives were at their hardest

Tending fields through guns of August.

We’ll learn, poppies bloom unattended.

But hearts scarred cannot be mended.

When life feels normal, our grief is sharpest.

As we are left to tend the fields.

Thank you for coming today to help us commemorate the Women of World War I.  May God bless all of us and all those who bravely sing.

Copyright © Michelle J. Howard, 7 November 2018

Admiral Michelle HowardMichelle Janine Howard is a retired United States Navy officer who last served as the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe while she concurrently served as the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Africa and commander of Allied Joint Force Command Naples. She previously served as the 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operation. She was the US Navy’s first female 4-star admiral.