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 sacrifice.
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
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.
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
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
hundreds 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.
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”
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.
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.
John McCrae died of pneumonia at Wimereux, France on 28 January
1918. He was 45 years old.
For music and information,
Remembrance Music section of the Legion Main site
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 1921.
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
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
Today, when people from
all parts of Canada and from all walks of life join together in
their pledge to never forget, they 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.