Each November, over thirteen million poppies blossom in Canada. They blossom on the jackets, dresses and hats of nearly half the Canadian population and they have blossomed 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. On November 11th Canadians all across the country will stop and pay tribute to the women and men killed in Canada's wars and military operations. Some will remember friends and relatives long dead. 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.
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. The poem circulated as a folk song, by word of mouth and all who hear it are deeply touched.
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.