tdf003 – The History of the Poppy

Each November, millions of poppies blossom in Canada. They blossom on the jackets, dresses and hats of nearly half the Canadian population and they have blossomed over 80 years, since 1921. The poppy is the symbol that individuals use to show that they remember those who were killed in the wars and peace keeping operations that Canada has been involved in.

The association of the poppy to those who had been killed in war had existed for at least 110 years prior to being adopted in Canada. There are records of a correspondent who, during the Napoleonic War, wrote of how thickly poppies grew over the graves of soldiers in the area of Flanders, France.

The person, who more than any other, that was responsible for the adoption of the poppy in Canada was a Canadian Medical Officer during the First World War. This person was Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of Guelph, Ontario.

John McCrae was a tall, boyish 43-year-old member of the Canadian Medical Corps. He was an artillery veteran of the Boer War in South Africa and was described as a person with the eye of a gunner, the hand of a surgeon, and the soul of a poet when he went into the line at Ypres on the 22nd of April 1915.

April 22 was the first time that the enemy used poison gas but the first attack failed and so did the next wave and the next. In fact, for 17 days and nights the allies repulsed wave after wave of the attacking enemy. McCrae wrote – “One can see the dead lying there on the front field. And in places where the enemy threw in an attack, they lie very thick on the slopes of the German trenches.”

Lieutenant-Colonel McCrae, worked from a dressing station on the bank of the Yser Canal, dressing hundreds of wounded and never removed his clothes for the entire 17 days. At times the dead and wounded actually rolled down the bank from above his dugout. At other times, while awaiting the arrival of batches of wounded, he would watch the men at work in the burial plots which were quickly filling up. In time, McCrae and his unit were relieved and he wrote home ” We are weary in body and wearier in mind. The general impression in my mind is one of a nightmare”.

Lieutenant-Colonel McCrae came away from Ypres with 13 lines scrawled on a scrap of paper. The lines were a poem which started: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow…”

These were the lines which are enshrined in the innermost thoughts and hearts of all soldiers who hear them. John McCrae was their voice. The poem circulated as a folk song, by word of mouth and all who hear it are deeply touched. In the United States for example, the poem inspired the American Legion to also adopt the poppy as the symbol of Remembrance.

In Canada, the poppy was officially adopted by the Great War Veterans Association in 1921 on the suggestion of a Mrs. E. Guerin, a French citizen. But there is little doubt that the impact of John McCrae’s poem influenced this decision.

The poem speaks of Flanders fields, but the subject is universal – the fear of the dead that they will be forgotten, that their death will have been in vain. Remembrance, as symbolized by the poppy, is our eternal answer which belies that fear.

Sadly, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae died of pneumonia at Wimereux near Boulogne, France on the 28th of January 1918 when he was 44 years old.


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.

~ John McCrae


On November 11th Canadians all across the country will stop and pay tribute to the men and women killed in Canada’s wars and military operations. Some will remember friends and relatives long dead. Others – like yourselves perhaps – will pause in tribute (but will really have nothing to remember).

For millions of Canadians the poppy has long been the flower of Remembrance. It originally was a reminder of the blood-red flower which grew in the fields where many Canadians died in a place called Flanders. It remains the flower of Remembrance.

In schoolrooms across Canada for a number of years students have discussed Remembrance; recognizing the sacrifices which others made for Canada but unsure of how they themselves could respond. What could they do? How could they live up to the expectations of the men and women who gave their lives for Canada and future generations? Today, there is an answer. It was always there only now it can be seen much more clearly. It has to do with unity.

Canadian unity is not as strong today as it once was. When men from all parts of Canada came to a place called Vimy Ridge in 1917 everybody said that it was impossible to take the Ridge from the enemy. In a very important battle on a very cold day the Canadians did what nobody thought was possible. They took Vimy Ridge. When the guns stopped, the Canadians were very happy. Not so much for the victory itself but for the difficult thing they had done together. They were proud to be Canadians. Some of them who were wounded and waiting to be shipped to hospital lay on stretchers in tunnels in the earth. They carved maple leaves on the wall. It was a good time to be a Canadian.

In another war when the guns stopped at a place called Dieppe, the Canadians suffered a terrible defeat. This time Canadians from East and West shared a defeat. And as the wounded, ragged soldiers were marched away to prison camps, they marched proudly, knowing that they had shared something difficult. It was a sad time to be a Canadian. Thousands of young men from all parts of Canada faced death together at Dieppe. You can see their graves and read their names on the stones. The stones speak eloquently of ethnic and religious origins. They speak of men with a common cause: Canada.

In Canadian schoolrooms today there are students whose parents, or even themselves, remember other wars. Some remember the terrible ordeal of escaping to freedom. To them the poppy can be a symbol of that freedom. But it is important for all of us to remember that unity of Canadians in wartime enables all of us to enjoy freedom.

Although Canada now has repatriated her constitution, the spirit of a common cause is lacking. We no longer share difficult things with a sense of unity. The poppy, then, is a reminder of the need: a challenge to each of us to seek out that spirit of unity which sustained our forefathers and our country.


Non-commercial Reproduction allowed by Dominion Command of The Royal Canadian Legion

Source –