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.
Each November, Poppies blossom on the
lapels and collars of over half of Canada’s entire population. Since 1921, the
Poppy has stood as a symbol of Remembrance, our visual pledge to never forget
all those Canadians who have fallen in war and military operations. The Poppy
also stands internationally as a “symbol of collective reminiscence”, as other
countries have also adopted its image to honour those who have paid the ultimate
This significance of the Poppy can be traced to international
origins. The association of the Poppy to those who had been killed in war has
existed since the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, over 110 years before
being adopted in Canada. There exists a record from that time of how thickly
Poppies grew over the graves of soldiers in the area of Flanders, France.
This early connection between the Poppy and battlefield deaths
described how fields that were barren before the battles exploded with the
blood-red flowers after the fighting ended.
Just 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 rhoes” to thrive. When the war
ended, the lime was quickly absorbed and the Poppy began to disappear again.
The person who was responsible more
than any other for the adoption of the Poppy as a symbol of Remembrance in
Canada and the Commonwealth was Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian
Medical Officer during the First World War.
Lieutenant-Colonel McCrae was born on
30 November 1872 in Guelph, Ontario. At age 14, he joined the Highfield Cadet
Corps and, three years later, enlisted in the Militia field battery. While
attending the University of Toronto Medical School, he was a member of the
Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.
With Britain declaring war on Germany on 4 August 1914,
Canada’s involvement was automatic. John McCrae was among the first wave of
Canadians who enlisted to serve and he was appointed as brigade surgeon to the
First Brigade of the Canadian Forces Artillery.
In April 1915, John McCrae was stationed near Ypres, Belgium,
the area traditionally called Flanders. It was there, during the Second Battle
of Ypres, that some of the fiercest fighting of the First World War occurred.
Working from a dressing station on the banks of the Yser Canal, dressing
of wounded soldiers from wave after wave of relentless enemy
attack, he observed how “we are weary in body and wearier in mind. The general
impression in my mind is of a nightmare.”
In May, 1915, on the day following the death of fellow soldier
Lt Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, John McCrae wrote his now famous work, an expression
of his anguish over the loss of his friend and a reflection of his surroundings
– wild Poppies growing amid simple wooden crosses marking makeshift graves.
These 15 lines, written in 20 minutes, captured an exact description of the
sights and sounds of the area around him.
Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae left Ypres with these memorable
few lines scrawled on a scrap of paper. His words were a poem which started, “In
Flanders fields the poppies blow…” Little did he know then that these 15 lines
would become enshrined in the innermost thoughts and hearts of all soldiers who
hear them. Through his words, the scarlet Poppy quickly became the symbol for
soldiers who died in battle.
The poem was first published on 8 December 1915
in England, appearing in “Punch” magazine.
His 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, France on 28
January 1918. He was 45 years old.
An American teacher, Moina Michael,
while working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters in New York
City in November 1918, read John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”. She
immediately made “a personal pledge to keep the faith and vowed always to wear a
red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and as an emblem for
keeping the faith with all who died".
Two years later, 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. Following the example of Madame Guerin, the
Great War Veterans’ Association in Canada (the predecessor of The Royal Canadian
Legion) officially adopted the Poppy as its Flower of Remembrance on 5 July
Thanks to the millions of Canadians who wear the Legion’s lapel
Poppy 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.
At 0530 hours on the morning of 9 April 1917, the
Battle of Vimy Ridge began, marking an important milestone in our military
history. For the next few days, Canadian troops fought relentlessly, braving
enemy forces, a heavily-fortified ridge and the weather. This battle was
significant; not only was it a resounding success for Canada but, in the words
of Brigadier-General A.E. Ross, it marked the “birth of a nation”. No longer
would Canada be overshadowed by the military strength of her allies. This battle
had proven Canada’s ability as a formidable force in the theatre of war.
The bravery, discipline and sacrifice that Canadian troops
displayed during those few days are now legendary. The battle represented a
memorable unification of our personnel resources as troops from all Canadian
military divisions, from all parts of Canada and from all walks of life, joined
to collectively overcome the powerful enemy at considerable odds. Our troops
united to defeat adversity and a military threat to the world.
Now, decades later, Canadians stand united in their Remembrance
as they recognize and honour the selfless acts of our troops from all wars. We
realize that it is because of our war veterans that we exist as a proud and free
Today, when people from all parts of Canada and from all walks
of life join together in their pledge to never forget, hey choose to display
this collective reminiscence by wearing a Poppy. They stand united as Canadians
sharing a common history of sacrifice and commitment.
The lapel Poppies that are worn in Canada today were
first made, beginning in 1922, by disabled veterans under the sponsorship of the
Department of Soldiers Civil Re-establishment. Until 1996, Poppy material was
made at the “Vetcraft” sheltered workshops run by Veterans Affairs Canada in
Montreal and Toronto. The work provided a small source of income for disabled
ex-service persons and their dependants, allowing them to take an active part in
maintaining the tradition of Remembrance.
When it no longer became practical for Veterans Affairs Canada
to maintain the “Vetcraft” operations, the Legion volunteered to take on the
continuing responsibility for the production of Poppies.
In so doing, Dominion Command has
awarded a production contract to a private company to produce the Poppies but
all operations are conducted under strict Legion control and oversight.
shall remain and be reverently observed at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the
11th month of each year by us and our successors.