In much of the old British Empire, November 11 is commemorated as Remembrance Day. The warring parties, which had sent their young people into trenches to shoot each other, finally created a cease-fire. It was set to begin at 11 am on November 11th in Europe’s bloody battle fields. The armistice held and the Great War, or World War I as we now know it, was over. Seventy million soldiers had been mobilized. Nine million of them died, along with seven million civilians. After the war, genocides, famine, and influenza killed one hundred million more.
In Canada, and many other parts of the world, the symbol of remembrance and respect for the people who died is an artificial poppy pinned to the lapel. The poppies are given away by veterans’ groups and others who accept a donation in return.
Why the poppy? It started with Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician who was in Ypres, a town in West Flanders, Belgium, during World War I. A few years ago, I was in Flanders and visited the trenches and spent an evening wandering about in the cemetery where McCrae’s friend, Alexis Helmer, was buried. It was mid-July when I was there, the sun was setting late and the place was deserted, except for me and my 13-year-old boy, my oldest son.
There were no poppies that day, but a hundred years earlier, in May 1915, John McCrae had seen row on row of the red flowers, waving in the breeze. The loss of his friends in battle, the poppies, and the fatigue of war caused McCrae to pen a short poem of tribute. Here are first lines:
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.
A few months after he wrote it, the Canadian soldier’s poem was published in a British magazine. John McCrae did not survive the war and never saw the effect his words about poppies and the fallen dead would have upon the next generations. Here in Canada, school children memorize “In Flanders Fields” and the poppy represents the solemn loss of soldiers.
The poppy is one of the earliest plants that I remember from my childhood. My mother grew many of the bright red lanky flowers in her gardens near the pond. Much later, I became intrigued by the red flower with its black center. It gives no nectar but yields black pollen to bees willing to work hard and shake the flower until bits of black dust fall off. Add to that the fact that ‘red’ appears ‘black’ to a bee. To a bee, then, the poppy is an unattractive black flower with black pollen and no nectar. The flower seems more appropriate as a symbol of death – with just a tiny hint of a hard-won future (those black pollen grains) embedded. An appropriate choice for a war remembrance symbol.
My older son – the one who was 13 when he and I visited the battlefields of Flanders – is now an articling lawyer. This weekend, he participated in a special ceremony at the Calgary courthouse. It has been 100 years since the war ended. During the Great War, 37 young Calgarians who were law students or articling (doing their apprentice work) went off to fight in Europe and never returned. The Calgary law society posthumously welcomed those fallen soldiers to the bar. They were symbolically represented by young people, and family members, wearing poppies on their lapels.
Thanks Ron for your piece with your own memories and links to history. We do indeed owe much to surgeon John McCrae. His poem was first published in ‘Punch’, having been rejected by ‘The Spectator’ (I bet they now wished they had accepted the poem!). Then, in 1918, in response to McCrae’s poem, it is said that American humanitarian Moina Michael wrote ‘And now the Torch and Poppy Red, we wear in honor of our dead…’. She campaigned to make the poppy a symbol of remembrance of those who had died in the war. Artificial poppies were first sold (by donation) in Britain in 1921 to raise money for the Earl Haig Fund in support of ex-servicemen and the families of those who had died in the conflict. These first poppies were made of silk. They were supplied by Anna Guérin, who had been manufacturing the flowers in France to raise money for war orphans. Selling poppies proved so popular that in 1922 the British Legion founded a factory – staffed by disabled ex-servicemen – to produce its own. It continues to do so today.
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Such a sad thing–war. I cried so much reading, the first time, “All Quiet on the Western Front” The poppies were sought out when I went on my first trip to France, both for their botanical status and as the flower most often mentioned in books about that war. Your writing on this piece is very poignant! Thank you
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Thank you, again, for a thoughtful post as always.
Hi Ron— as a lifelong horsewoman, I get these posts from the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition, the latest being a remembrance of the last major war to use horses and mules extensively. “They Also Served” is a short video honoring the key role played by these equines and their suffering alongside the soldiers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVO6BKNUnmI SO many died, and the book by Michael Morporgo “The War Horse” that my son and I read years ago, captured the agony of so many innocent animals. After the war, many of the loyal equines were simply abandoned to whatever country they found themselves in. The founding of the international equine welfare group “The Brooke” grew out of Englishwoman, Dorothy Brooke’s alarm at the thousands of suffering ex-war horses in Cairo dumped in the Middle East after the war ended.