Remembrance Day | 3. History of the Poppy

Millions of Canadians pin one to their lapel or hat each and every November 11th as a way of expressing their remembrance of the servicemen and women who gave their lives in two world wars and in Korea. Others remember the sacrifices made in the world’s trouble spots such as Cyprus, Bosnia and most recently in Afghanistan. Whatever the reason, in Canada, the poppy has become to be known as the one universal symbol of remembrance.

The story of how the poppy has become the symbol of remembrance has varying origins but the overall basis for the wearing of the poppy is without question, Captain John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields”. Some claim that a young New Yorker by the name of Moira Michaels was the first to wear a poppy as a means of “keeping the faith” after reading a copy of “In Flanders Fields”. During a meeting of the YMCA wartime secretaries in New York, which was hosted by Ms. Michaels, she had been given a small monetary gift by visiting delegates. She thanked them for this gift and said that she would use the money to purchase poppies, relating to them John McCrae’s poem which had been her inspiration. Amongst them was the representative from France, Madame E. Guerin who was in turn inspired to take this idea home. In 1921, Madame Guerin and a group of French war widows approached the former British Commander-in-Chief, Earl Haig, at the Legion Headquarters in London, about the idea of selling artificial poppies to raise monies to help needy soldiers and their families. The Legion had first been formed to help veterans and their families who had been left impoverished during the war and Haig was quick to adopt their idea as an excellent method to both honour the dead and help the living.

Poppies indeed became significant as a remembrance of war as prior to the Great War, poppies were rare in the fields of Flanders. It is said that the chalk soil of Flanders became rich in lime due to the rubble produced by the massive bombardments of battle. The earth that was stirred up by so many artillery shells in turn released the poppy seeds that would not normally have had the chance to germinate. They spread prolifically across the fields until it appeared as a sea of red. Perhaps a fitting ironic symbolism of the blood spilt by so many for so little.

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