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How a Common Wildflower became the Symbol of Remembrance Day

November 11, 2020

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens.

The common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) has for thousands of years been a familiar sight in Europe. Its brilliant scarlet flowers grow in perfusion in meadows, alongside roads, and even in farmers’ fields. They became a familiar sight for the Canadian and other Allied soldiers who found themselves in the battlefields of France and Belgium during the First World War (1914–1918). This plant grows in many places where the soil has been disturbed, like fields, roadsides, and, yes, battlefields. For a century now, P. rhoeas, now sometimes called the Flanders poppy, has been the delicate botanical symbol of the horrors of war.

When the First World War, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, broke out in 1914, a 41‑year old doctor, pathologist, writer, university teacher and Boer War veteran from Guelph named John McCrae volunteered to join the Canadian Expeditionary force in Europe.

McCrae was given the rank of Major and named Medical Officer to the 1st Brigade (Canadian Field Artillery), treating wounded soldiers under terrible conditions on the battlefield. During the second battle of Ypres, in Belgium on 2 May 1915, McCrae’s friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was killed at the age of 22. Having seen so much carnage already, McCrae reacted to his friend’s death the next day, writing a simple 97-word poem in three verses, “In Flanders Fields.”

The poem, first published just a few weeks later in the British magazine Punch, quickly became associated with remembering the horrors of war, not through flashing medals or volleys of gunfire, but by the haunting image of the red flowers of a simple wildflower growing between graves and on the churned soil of the battlefield.

McCrae continued his service after the publication of the poem. Sadly, he was not to survive the war. In early 1918, McCrae fell ill with pneumonia and died on 28 January in France. He was buried the next day with full military honours.

“In Flanders Fields” was published again in 1918 in an anthology of McCrae’s poems. By then the association between the red flower and remembrance of war was established. The tradition of wearing a silk or paper poppy at Remembrance Day started early. In November 1918, before the Armistice on 11 November, American professor Moina Bell Micheal attended a YMCA Oversees War Secretaries’ conference wearing a silk poppy. She distributed more to other attendees, and then began a campaign to spread the practice. By 1920 The National American Legion adopted the poppy as its official symbol of remembrance. Teacher and humanitarian Anna Guérin took up the cause, spread the practice in France and in both Canada and Newfoundland. By 1921, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand had taken it up too.

Few other botanical symbols have become associated with a historic event so quickly. Today, over 100 years after the Armistice and his death, the words of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD still echo around the world, evoking the sadness and terrible human cost of war.

Lest we Forget.

Dedicated with love to the memories of Captain Edward Aaron Wismer, and Private William Dickinson Galbraith, my grandfathers, veterans of the Great War.

Red poppies growing in a garden
Credit: Jennifer Dick

“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.

– John McCrae

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