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We are constantly moved by the site of a poppy being worn on a lapel.

There is a quite understatement to its presence – something quintessentially Canadian, a quietly strong statement made in a dignified manner.

Its has become a rite of the season – an appropriate memorial for Remembrance Day – a solemn occasion I much prefer to Veterans Day south of the border whose meaning at times tends to becomes confused with Memorial Day observed in May.

Its origins are connected to the fact that in late 1914 when the fields of Northern France and Flanders were ripped open by World War I, the poppy was just about the only plant to grow on the barren battlefields.

It seems that scarlet corn poppies (popaver rhoeas) grow naturally in conditions of disturbed earth throughout Western Europe. Years before World Wat I, the destruction brought by the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th Century had turned those lands into fields of feed poppies, growing around the bodies of the fallen soldiers.

The significance of the poppy as a lasting memorial symbol to the fallen was memorialized by  Canadian surgeon John McCrae in his poem In Flanders Fields. This now famous piece was penned  on May 3, 1915, when McCrae  was inspired, after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres. According to legend, fellow soldiers retrieved the poem after McCrae, initially dissatisfied with his work, discarded it. “In Flanders Fields” was first published on December 8 of that year in the London-based magazine Punch.

The poppy came to represent the immeasurable sacrifice made by his comrades and quickly became a lasting memorial to those who died in World War One and later conflicts.

In 1920, during a visit to the United States, a French woman, Madame Guerin, learned of the custom and decided to sell handmade Poppies to raise money for the children in war-torn areas of the country. Following her example, the Poppy was officially adopted by the Great War Veteran’s Association in Canada (our predecessor) as its Flower of Remembrance on July 5, 1921.

These days, the Royal Canadian Legion each year conducts a Poppy Campaign to honour those who serve, and to raise funds in support of Veterans and their families. From the last Friday in October to Remembrance Day, all Canadians are invited to be a part of the campaign by wearing a poppy, attending a ceremony, and showing a recognition for those who gave their lives in the name of freedom.

poppies-in-flanders

 

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.

~ 3 May 1915 John McCrae

(As published in Punch Magazine, 8 December 1915)

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