To anyone who has lived in or visited Canada in November before, the small plastic red flowers that can be seen on collars and lapels everywhere you walk is nothing out of the ordinary. It is a tradition that dates back almost one hundred years ago from when it was officially adopted by The Great War Veteran’s Association in Canada in 1921.
The first person to transform the poppy into a symbol of the war was Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian surgeon, soldier, and poet originally from Guelph, Ontario. McCrae graduated with honours from medical school at the University of Toronto and lived afterwards in Montreal, lecturing pathology at McGill University and working as the Associate in Medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital. However, when the First World War began, he went overseas to serve with the McGill hospital unit and attend to soldiers who were injured in battle. In 1915, McCrae was a surgeon on the front of the second battle of Ypres, and it was at this time that he would write the poem from which the symbol of the poppies would develop.
Through his time in the war, McCrae had become friends with Lieutenant Alexis Hannum Helmer, a civil engineer and fellow graduate of McGill University, but the friendship was short lived as Helmer was killed in a shell explosion on May 2nd, 1915 in the town of Ypres, Belgium. His burial was performed that night in the nearby Essex Farm Cemetery. The next day, May 3rd, 1915, while sitting on the back of an ambulance, McCrae composed what is now considered one of the most famous poems of the First World War. “In Flanders Fields” was an exact description of the scene in front of McCrae at the time; the gruesome and tragic makeshift cemeteries that were built on the bombarded fields where the war raged on. From the soil where bombshells were strewn and bodies laid to rest, poppies bloomed and flourished in the midst of the disaster and chaos. They were, and remain today, a symbol of remembrance and hope.
McCrae’s poem was first published anonymously in December of that same year in the British PUNCH magazine and shortly after flourished into the most popular English poem of the First World War. It is credited for the inspiration of using the poppy as the official flower of remembrance, recognized in Canada, Britain, France, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. McCrae passed away three years later in 1918 of pneumonia and meningitis in France at the age of 45.
In the same year that McCrae passed away, Moina Michael, an American teacher, read his poem and was inspired to start wearing a poppy as a symbol of remembrance and a tribute to those who fought and helped in the war. Later, a French woman named Madame Anne Guerin learned about the practice of wearing poppies in 1920 and furthered the tradition by making and selling them to raise funds for children who were living in areas of France that had been ruined by the war. It grew tremendously and was also adopted by the Royal British Legion and veterans groups in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
Today, millions of Canadians wear poppies pinned to their coats to reflect on the efforts of the Canadian soldiers in the First World War and on the 61,000 of them that never returned home and were laid to rest among the poppies in Europe. Typically, they are worn from the last Friday of October through Remembrance/Armistice Day on November 11th, the anniversary of the Armistice agreement that ended the First World War in 1918. The poppy is not a reflection of politics, religion, or support for the war, but a symbol of the memory and honour of those who fell in battle so that future generations could live in peace and freedom.
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