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The history of the poppy — a symbol of remembrance for 100 years


‘It’s a living symbol, it grows and it takes on new meaning with each generation of Canadians and also the wars we fight in as Canadians in the search for peace’

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Canadian veterans have used the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for more than a century.

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The flower, which grew across the blighted landscape of the Western Front during the First World War, is a powerful reminder of those who gave their lives in battle, and, today, they’re worn in commemoration in the United States, Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

Tim Cook, the director of research at the Canadian War Museum, said if anyone can be credited for the creation of the poppy as a symbol, it’s John McCrae, the physician from Guelph, Ont., who wrote In Flanders Fields while serving in the First World War.

“It’s deeply entrenched with John McCrae and In Flanders Fields,” said Cook. “The western world was reciting that poem.”

Most Canadians today know it well, perhaps reciting the poem in elementary school or reading the words on a $10 bill.

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“In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row,” it reads.

What’s perhaps less well-known is that McCrae’s poem, which was published in Punch, an English magazine in 1915, inspired another poem, this one written by Moina Michael, an American humanitarian.

It’s entitled We Shall Keep the Faith, and was written in 1918.

It reads, in part:

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

The history of who, exactly, came up with the idea to turn the poppy into a lapel pin is less clear. Micheal is sometimes credited, as is Anna Guérin, who was helping rebuild war-torn areas of France, and began making poppies out of red silk.

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“I think both of those women played a part in furthering the poppy as an emblem or symbol,” said Cook. “It’s probably too simple to suggest that it is just this person or that person, but I think we know where it starts, it starts with John McCrae.”

The British Legion sold nine million of them in 1920, raising 106,000 pounds, according to according to Canada’s History magazine.

“(Guérin) took that concept of the poppy symbol as a way to remember fallen veterans,” said Nujma Bond, a spokesperson with the Royal Canadian Legion.

It was in July 1921 that the Great War Veterans’ Association, a Canadian veterans group, and the precursor to the Royal Canadian Legion, took up the poppy as a Remembrance Day symbol, a tradition the Legion has carried on in the century since, says the Canadian War Museum. Guérin presented the idea to the association.

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“And here we are now 100 years later with the poppy as this significant symbol of remembrance in Canada,” said Bond.

Veteran Gerald Roberts looks over some of the 1,500 knitted and crocheted poppies residents of Silvera’s Shouldice community displayed to pay tribute to veterans this Remembrance Day.
Veteran Gerald Roberts looks over some of the 1,500 knitted and crocheted poppies residents of Silvera’s Shouldice community displayed to pay tribute to veterans this Remembrance Day. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

Initially, the poppies were created by disabled veterans.

“Most appropriately, in Canada the manufacture of the silken replicas is gradually being concentrated in the hands of men who were broken by the conflict. Men who are unemployable in the exacting processes of ordinary commerce find in the manufacture of these little flowers a sacred and congenial task,” wrote the Legionary magazine at the time.

The poppy has endured as a symbol through all of Canada’s wars, Cook said.

“It’s a symbol that, while a historical one, has evolved with Canada, has evolved with generation after generation, and today, for instance, we don’t just think of the First World War, the Great War,” said Cook. “That’s probably the power of the symbol, is that it’s a living symbol, it grows and it takes on new meaning with each generation of Canadians and also the wars we fight in as Canadians in the search for peace.”

• Email: tdawson@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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