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History of the Poppy

An Enduring Symbol

Submitted by Christine Whelan

Nov.11, 2021, VOL. 3 ISSUE 6

Remembrance Day, originally called Armistice Day, recognized every 11th of November at 11:00 am, marks the end of hostilities during the First World War. It’s also an opportunity to recall and acknowledge all those who have served in the nation’s defence. (Canadian War Museum)

History of the Poppy

As told on the Legion’s website, the significance of the poppy can be traced back to the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, years before being adopted in Canada. Records from that time indicate how thick poppies grew over the graves of soldiers in the area of Flanders, France.

Before the war broke out, the fields had been barren.

Then, the tremendous artillery bombardments of the First World War completely disrupted the landscape, infusing the chalk soils with lime from rubble, allowing papaver rhoeas, or poppies, to thrive in the environment, their colours standing out against the blasted terrain.

When the war ended, the lime was quickly absorbed and the poppies began to disappear again.

When The Significance of the Poppy Came To Canada

Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of Guelph, Ontario, a Canadian Medical Officer during the First World War, introduced the poppy to Canada and the Commonwealth.

McCrae penned the poem, In Flanders Field, on a scrap of paper in May 1915, on the day following the death of a fellow soldier. The poem was published in London’s Punch magazine in December of that same year.

And, it later became the collaboration of inspiration for a woman by the name of Madame Anne Guérin of France and a woman by the name of Moina Michael, American humanitarian and academic.

According to canadashistory.ca, two days before the Armistice, Moina Michael read McCrae’s poem while on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters in New York. Servicemen would go there to say goodbye to family and friends before heading overseas.

Inspired by McCrae’s poem, Michael wrote her own called, We Shall Keep the Faith, in which she vowed to wear the poppy to remember the war dead, “And now the torch and poppy red, we wear in honor of our dead.”

In 1920, Anna Guérin was inspired by Michael’s idea to make poppies a memorial flower. Soon after, Guérin made red silk poppies and sold them in Britain to raise money for the Earl Haig Fund in support of former soldiers and the families of those who died during the war.

Later, Anna presented her concept to France’s allies, including the precursor to The Royal Canadian Legion, The Great War Veterans Association. The idea was considered at a meeting in Port Arthur, Ontario (now Thunder Bay) and was adopted on July 6, 1921. The Canadian Legion, formed in 1925, continued this connection.

The poppies were initially made by disabled veterans and the proceeds of sales, then and now, go towards funding veterans’ needs. The poppy is worn on the left lapel and close to the heart to recognize the sacrifice of soldiers in times of war.

The Evolution of the Poppy

From 1980 to 2002, the centers of the poppies were green. The colour reverted to black to better represent the colour of the poppies in Flanders.

Over the years poppies have been made from different materials. In the United Kingdom, early poppies were made from silk but now are made from paper. In Canada, our weather makes plastic a better choice of material.

Today, the Royal Canadian Legion holds its Poppy Campaign from the last Friday in October to Remembrance Day. The money raised from this campaign provides financial assistance to veterans, funding medical equipment, research, home services, long-term facilities, and more. The campaign raises about $14 million annually from donations.

Lest We Forget

As I did my research and came across words like in these next two paragraphs of a post in blocksagencies.ca about Remembrance Day, I couldn’t help but think about these days and what is important in these days. What our roles are, individually and collectively, in these days, for ourselves now, and for our children in the future.

“These wars may have happened many years ago, but the meaning behind the war is still relevant today. The people fought for those who could not fight for themselves, they fought to stand and protect their people and their country. They fought because they believed in freedom, not slavery. They fought because they believed Canada was a place of refuge and peace, not war and genocide. These people had courage beyond all measure, and if we do not remember them, then we have forgotten what we stand for.

“The expression ‘Lest we forget’ is often associated with this day of remembrance. It means “it should not be forgotten.” We do not know what condition our country or world would have been in if these people did not step up and defended our rights. But we do know, because of their sacrifice, we get to enjoy all the simple freedoms of life that we simply overlook. Let’s not forget. Let’s take the time November 11th, and every day for that matter, to remember what those people gave for our freedom, and let’s use that as fuel to help those without freedom today.”

As we wear our poppies this year, Fort Erie, we remember what should never, ever be forgotten, what we stand for — freedom.

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.

Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae

~ May 3, 1915

(As published in Punch Magazine, December 8, 1915)

The poppy remains an enduring symbol of remembrance in Canada, Great Britain, the nations of the Commonwealth, and in the United States, for those who served or fell in service of their country.

It is also the principal emblem of the Royal Canadian Legion. Learn more about the poppy on the Legion’s website www.legion.ca

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