The red poppy, a native plant along much of the Western Front during the First World War, has become a powerful symbol of remembrance. It is the principal emblem of the Royal Canadian Legion, which distributes several million each year to be worn by Canadians on Remembrance Day.
“In Flanders Fields the Poppies Blow…”
The familiar symbol of the poppy owes much of its fame to Canadian poet and soldier John McCrae. In Flanders Fields, McCrae’s best-known poem, was inspired by and made reference to the poppies which grew along the Western Front. It opens, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row…”
The blood-red poppy had long been associated with the fighting armies of Europe, and the flowers often overgrew the mass graves left by battles. During the First World War, enormous artillery bombardments completely disrupted the landscape, infusing the chalk soils with lime. The poppies thrived in the environment, their colours standing out against the blasted terrain.
An Enduring Symbol
In 1921, the Great War Veterans’ Association, the largest of several Canadian veterans groups, adopted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. The Canadian Legion, formed in 1925, continued this connection. The poppy was worn on the left lapel and close to the heart to recognize the sacrifice of soldiers in times of war. They were initially made by disabled veterans and the proceeds of sales, then and now, go towards funding veterans’ needs.
The poppy remains an enduring symbol of remembrance in Canada, Great Britain, the nations of the Commonwealth, and in the United States for those who served or fell in service of their country.
About John McCrae
McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario and served as a gunner in the South African War. He was later a professor of medicine and physician at McGill University in Montreal. McCrae enlisted quickly at the outbreak of the First World War, hoping for a position as a gunner, but doctors were in short supply and he accepted an appointment as brigade-surgeon in an artillery brigade.
At the Battle of Second Ypres in April 1915, McCrae spent 17 days caring for the wounded and performing surgery on Canadian and Allied troops. Exhausted and saddened by the death of a close friend, he composed In Flanders Fields during a brief rest. The poem was published on 8 December 1915 in Punch magazine, where it achieved almost instant world-wide fame. It captured the Allies’ belligerent mood and the requirement to “keep faith” with those who had already died.
McCrae had become an internationally-recognized poet, but continued to work as a surgeon. He served in a number of Canadian hospitals during the war and pushed himself and his staff hard. McCrae was often sick but took little rest and succumbed to pneumonia on 28 January 1918. He is buried in Wimereux Cemetery, in France. McCrae’s poem is read by millions in Canada and around the world each Remembrance Day. A history museum in the Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium is named after his poem; the special exhibition gallery in the Canadian War Museum, Canada’s national museum of military history, is named for McCrae.
Source: Canadian War Museum