Poppy & Rememberance
History of the Poppy
Why was the poppy chosen as the symbol of remembrance for Canada’s war dead? The poppy, an international symbol for those who died in war, also had international origins. A writer first made the connection between the poppy and battlefield deaths during the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, remarking that fields that were barren before battle exploded with the blood-red flowers after the fighting ended. Prior to the First World War few poppies grew in Flanders. During the tremendous bombardments of that war the chalk soils became rich in lime from rubble, allowing ‘popaver rhoeas’ to thrive. When the war ended the lime was quickly absorbed, and the poppy began to disappear again. Lieut-Col. John McCrae, the Canadian doctor who wrote the poem IN FLANDERS FIELDS, made the same connection 100 years later, during the First World War, and the scarlet poppy quickly became the symbol for soldiers who died in battle. Three years later an American, Moina Michael, was working in a New York City YMCA canteen when she started wearing a poppy in memory of the millions who died on the battlefield. During a 1920 visit to the United States a French woman, Madame Guerin, learned of the custom. On her return to France she decided to use handmade poppies to raise money for the destitute children in war-torn areas of the country. In November 1921, the first poppies were distributed in Canada.
Thanks to the millions of Canadians who wear the flowers each November, the little red plant has never died. And neither have Canadian’s memories for 117,000 of their countrymen who died in battle.
The Poppy … The Flower of Remembrance
Each November, millions of poppies blossom in Canada. They blossom on the jackets, dresses and hats of nearly half the Canadian population and they have blossomed over 80 years, since 1921. The poppy is the symbol that individuals use to show that they remember those who were killed in the wars and peace keeping operations that Canada has been involved in.
The association of the poppy to those who had been killed in war had existed for at least 110 years prior to being adopted in Canada. There are records of a correspondent who, during the Napoleonic War, wrote of how thickly poppies grew over the graves of soldiers in the area of Flanders, France.
The person, who more than any other, that was responsible for the adoption of the poppy in Canada was a Canadian Medical Officer during the First World War. This person was Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of Guelph, Ontario.
John McCrae was a tall, boyish 43-year-old member of the Canadian Medical Corps. He was an artillery veteran of the Boer War in South Africa and was described as a person with the eye of a gunner, the hand of a surgeon, and the soul of a poet when he went into the line at Ypres on the 22nd of April 1915.
April 22 was the first time that the enemy used poison gas but the first attack failed and so did the next wave and the next. In fact, for 17 days and nights the allies repulsed wave after wave of the attacking enemy. McCrae wrote – “One can see the dead lying there on the front field. And in places where the enemy threw in an attack, they lie very thick on the slopes of the German trenches.”
Lieutenant-Colonel McCrae, worked from a dressing station on the bank of the Yser Canal, dressing hundreds of wounded and never removed his clothes for the entire 17 days. At times the dead and wounded actually rolled down the bank from above his dugout. At other times, while awaiting the arrival of batches of wounded, he would watch the men at work in the burial plots which were quickly filling up. In time, McCrae and his unit were relieved and he wrote home ” We are weary in body and wearier in mind. The general impression in my mind is one of a nightmare”.
Lieutenant-Colonel McCrae came away from Ypres with 13 lines scrawled on a scrap of paper. The lines were a poem which started: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow…”
These were the lines which are enshrined in the innermost thoughts and hearts of all soldiers who hear them. John McCrae was their voice. The poem circulated as a folk song, by word of mouth and all who hear it are deeply touched. In the United States for example, the poem inspired the American Legion to also adopt the poppy as the symbol of Remembrance.
In Canada, the poppy was officially adopted by the Great War Veterans Association in 1921 on the suggestion of a Mrs. E. Guerin, a French citizen. But there is little doubt that the impact of John McCrae’s poem influenced this decision.
The poem speaks of Flanders fields, but the subject is universal – the fear of the dead that they will be forgotten, that their death will have been in vain. Remembrance, as symbolized by the poppy, is our eternal answer which belies that fear.
Sadly, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae died of pneumonia at Wimereux near Boulogne, France on the 28th of January 1918 when he was 44 years old.
IN FLANDERS FIELDSIn 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
The above text thanks to the Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command website
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