Each year, during our Remembrance season in November, Canadians wear red poppies to show their respect for Canadian men and women who served and sacrificed their lives to promote peace and preserve freedom.
Poppies can be traced back to Ghengis Khan’s battle campaigns, where legends say that white poppies would grow over battlefields that were drenched in blood. During the Napoleonic wars the same phenomenon of poppies appearing throughout battlefields was again observed.
In the last century the poppy has become our flower of remembrance, inspired by the poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer serving in the First World War.
History of the Poppy
John McCrae's poem, In Flanders Fields, was a grieving ballad for his lost friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer, and is recognized internationally. McCrae lamented that wild poppies grew everywhere amongst the crosses marking soldier’s graves as he buried his friend.
After reading McCrae’s poignant poem in November 1918, American teacher Moina Michael was inspired to wear a red poppy year-round to remember the sacrifice of the soldiers. Madame E. Guerin of France met Michael in 1920 and resolved to sell handmade poppies around Armistice Day to raise money for poor children in war-torn areas of Europe.
Field Marshall Earl Haig, former commander-in-chief of the British armies in France and Belgium, and principal founder of the British Legion so admired Guerin’s idea that he approved the organization of the British Poppy Day Appeal by the Legion in 1921 to raise money for poor and disabled veterans.
On a trip to Canada that same year, Madame Guerin persuaded the Great War’s Veteran Association of Canada (predecessor to the Royal Canadian Legion) to adopt the poppy as a symbol of remembrance in aid of fundraising.
The Poppy officially became Canada’s Flower of Remembrance in November of 1921. The lapel poppies that we wear today were first made in 1922 by disabled veterans. This provided them and their dependents with a small source of income and was under the sponsorship of the Department of Soldier Civil Re-establishment.
In 1966 when this was no longer practical, the Canadian Legion took over responsibility for poppy production from Veteran Affairs Canada and awarded the contract to a private company still keeping it under Legion control and oversight.
Today, the tradition of the poppy as a commemorative flower remains mostly within the Commonwealth. In Canada, the Royal Canadian Legion has trademarked the poppy as a symbol of Remembrance and the Poppy Campaign is the Legion’s major fundraiser to support veterans.
In Flanders Fields
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.