The red poppy as a symbol of Remembrance Day has its roots in the Second Battle of Ypres, which marked a profound change in the waging of war in a war that had already been changed in horrific ways the world had never before witnessed.
For the first time, gas was used on the Western Front during the First World War. At Ypres in May 1915, Canadian and French Algerian troops were the first to encounter chlorine gas released by opposing German forces. The Algerians, who bore the brunt of the war’s first gas attack, fled in panic. But using advice from their companions, the Canadians soaked handkerchiefs in urine and held them over their mouths and noses while successfully repelling a German attack. The use of gas gave new meaning to the term, the “fog of war.”
It was at Ypres that Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a medical officer treating Canadians wounded during the battle, wrote the poem that came to mark the remembrance of the sacrifices Canadians made in wars and while on UN peacekeeping missions. In particular, it was the poppies of Flanders Fields referred to in the poem that became the symbol of the sacrifice.
The poem, In Flanders Fields, was written by McCrae on May 3, 1915, a day after the death of Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, a friend and fellow Canadian. Helmer was killed when an artillery shell exploded near his feet. His remains were collected in an army blanket and then buried at nearby Essex Farm Cemetery. McCrae resided at the graveside service, where Helmer’s final resting place was marked by a small wooden cross.
The next day, sitting on an ambulance step inside the dressing station, he wrote the following 15 lines of verse:
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 hears 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.
The death of his friend and the carnage of the battlefield had a deep impact on McCrae (who died of pneumonia on January 28, 1918). In a letter to his mother, McCrae wrote of the Battle of Ypres: “The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds ... And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
McCrae’s poem first appeared in the December 8, 1915, edition of Punch magazine, but his name was not included. The poem was also placed in a poor location — a bottom corner of a left-hand page. Still, people did notice the poem. As it grew in popularity, its authorship by McCrae was acknowledged. The potency of its contents struck readers, which ensured its legacy. The image of poppies blowing between the crosses had particularly created a lasting image in the minds of people across the world.
On July 5, 1921, the Great War Veterans’ Association (GWVA, the forerunner of the Royal Canadian Legion) in Canada adopted the red poppy as its Flower of Remembrance.
“The memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the Great War (the name then of the First World War) will be reverenced in Canada this year by the wearing of a red poppy on Armistice Day (today’s Remembrance Day), according to plans now being formulated by the Dominion command, Great War Veterans’ association,” announced a September 9, 1921, Canadian Press (CP) article.
“The inauguration of this custom will, war veterans believe, accomplish three worthy objects: first, the custom of wearing a memorial poppy on Armistice Day; second, as the poppies will be sold for nominal sums, it will supply a means of providing relief for the unemployed this winter; third, as the poppies will be purchased from the French war orphans, it will go a long way toward the relief of distress in that country.”
The custom of wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day in Canada was actually pushed by Madame E. Guerin, who was known as “the Poppy Lady,” and represented the French Children’s League in her homeland.
She appeared at the annual meeting of the Winnipeg branch of the GWVA on October 25, 1921, during her cross-Canada trip to deliver 1.7-million poppies made by the children of France (150,000 for Manitoba). At the meeting, she said mothers and their children “are still living in cellars and dugouts in the devastated areas” (Manitoba Free Press, October 26, 1921). She told the veterans that 2,400 villages in France and Flanders had been destroyed during the war.
“Ladies, when you go out to make the day (Poppy Day) a success, remember that these boys here and those who are ‘over there,’ were going over the top, not once a week to give their blood and perhaps their lives,” she told the members of the Independent Order of the Daughter of the Empire (IODE, the ladies’ auxiliary of the GWVA), who were to sell the poppies on Winnipeg’s streets on November 11. “I am not preaching charity, but I am preaching help, as I should do for the sake of the men who have brought honor to your country, glory to your flag and peace to the world.”
A portion of the funds collected from the poppy sale by the IODE was also to be allocated to the GWVA for distribution toward the relief of the plight of war veterans. That first Canada-wide poppy campaign raised $80,000 for the orphaned French children and another $90,000 distributed to the local branches of the GWVA. In Winnipeg, a total of nearly $8,500 was raised with $4,000 given to the children overseas.
Today, poppies are distributed by the Royal Canadian Legion, which has the trademark for the Remembrance Day symbol. Donations to the Poppy Fund provides financial assistance to currently serving and retired veterans, including Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP, and their families in need.
Poppies are now available at all Royal Canadian Legion branches, as well as numerous convenience and retail stores, gas stations and other places of business. The custom is to wear the poppy on the left lapel near to the heart.
Wearing a poppy means we have not, paraphrasing John McCrae, broken faith with those who have died to preserve the freedoms enjoyed today by all Canadians.