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Remembrance Day : The Symbolics of Poppies

Every year for several weeks before November 11, a field of scarlet poppies appears on coat lapels across Canada. This wearing of the poppy has a complex history ...

that illustrates a distinctly Canadian set of compromises and erasures. It is a unique variation of a now world-wide ritual sparked by a Canadian poet.

During the First World War, while the second battle of Ypres was raging, Canadian Corps surgeon, Dr. John McCrae, had been working in a field hospital dressing-station on hundreds of poison-gassed and dying soldiers for 17 straight days. On May 2, 1915 McCrae's close friend and former student, the young lieutenant Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, was killed as a shell exploded at his feet.

McCrae had been unable to save him but is said to have helped to bury his friend under a wooden cross in the make-shift cemetery beside the dressing-station. The next day, he is said to have taken 20 minutes off and sat down upon the step of an ambulance to scribble down a 15-line, three-stanza poem about the event. Unhappy with it, McCrae threw it away. A fellow officer retrieved it, read its lines, written with the collective voice of all dead soldiers:

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.

The officer later mailed it to the British journal, Punch, which published it, anonymously, in its Dec 8, 1918 issue. It was a huge success, one critic describing it as "the most popular English poem of the Great War".

The poem captured the feelings of many 

McCrae's name was soon attached to it and it was re-printed in book and pamphlet form. The poem was put on posters and lines from it carved on memorials and grave stones.

The Victory Loan Bonds in Canada used its lines to raise $400 million. The UK even declared a Nov 15th "Poppy Day" for fund raising efforts. An American YMCA secretary, in 1919, Moira Michael, apparently read it and penned a poetic answer, "We Shall Keep the Faith", which contained the line "and poppy red wear in honour of the dead", inspiring many to wear a poppy in the USA.

The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars eventually adopted the poppy for the USA. The poem seemed to capture the feeling of many about death and sacrifice, waste and horror, patriotism and frustration, with the insistence that the Great War was not fought in vain.

McCrae was a doctor in a field-hospital.

During the first half of July 1916, his hospital had treated 5000 men. On July 1st alone, 700 came in. His health affected by poison gas, ill with pneumonia and then meningitis, McCrae died on January 28, 1917, He was buried at Wimereux, France, with full military honours. Along with 66,573 other Canadians, McCrae died before the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, which was to be known as Armistice Day.

How the Poppy became a national symbol 

In the first years after the First World War, under the instigation of a Madame Guérin of France, poppies began to be made as a method of raising funds for widows and orphans, in France and Belgium. The poppies were large, showy, beautiful, hand-made and in silk. When Field-Marshall Haig adopted the idea for his veterans, helping to create "Poppy Day" in the UK, the flowers were created in different sizes, materials and quality, depending on the amount of money that the donor offered. It seemed to suit the more class-structured British.

In 1921, when Madame Guérin encouraged the American Veterans of Foreign Wars to sell poppies, tensions arose amongst groups. The American Legion decided, in an independent mood, to sell daisies instead. The others, distancing themselves from the French model, changed the US flower name to "The Buddy Poppy".

The first Canadian Legion branch that Madame Guérin approached to join her program was based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. They agreed on a small standard size, paper, all the same medium quality, created to the same specifications, to be worn over the heart. By November 1921, every Canadian Legion branch accepted the style, structure and approach. Today, 13 million poppies are distributed from 1,720 Legion branches each year. The funds raised are then distributed to programs for needy veterans or their surviving families.

Beside a few attempts at replacing the pin with more secure backings, the only major change to the design was a return in 2002 to the more traditional black-centered flower after an experiment with green centers.

Interestingly, Canadian lapel poppies elicit a range of contradictory meanings and values simultaneously. They are, all at once, commemorative of war, soldiers, sacrifice, militarism, peace, pacifism, nationalism even unions.

In England, since the 1930s, pacifists donned a distinct white poppy to wear on November 11, setting themselves in opposition to those, they argued, who glorified war and soldiering with their blood-red poppies. Poland's poppies are very directly linked to a single World War II battle at the Abbey of Monte Cassino, and they symbolize patriotism and courage under fire. The Canadian blending of values is a result of political choices that encouraged compromises in seemingly irreconcilable contexts.

The reason the poppy became a polyvocal symbol in Canada, was that there were many competing voices as it developed. Business, workers, economics, politics, race, language, religion seemed at loggerheads, threatening to disrupt the social fabric. In the late 1920s, Canadian pacifists had suggested ending celebrations of Armistice Day due to their use of trophy weapon displays, battle recreations, etc. Clergy denounced them from their pulpits as being "traitors".

The Toronto Chamber of Commerce had protested the idea that the Armistice should have a paid holiday set aside for it, claiming it was a crass attempt by politicians who were after the soldier votes. Veterans fired back that Thanksgiving Day, celebrated in those days at the same time as Armistice Day, on the first Monday of the week of November 11, should be moved to a weekend so that the Armistice would alone be the holiday. Unemployed veterans, using their sacrifice in war to shame the public to create work, clashed with police and security forces in the streets. Working veterans, using the same war experience, took to the streets in strikes to demand better wages and conditions. They too ended up clashing with police.

Quebec and Francophone veterans, unhappy with how conscription had been handled and still dealing with the anti-Quebec sentiment in English Canada, wanted no part of remembrance services that only emphasized English-Canadian war efforts.

Unless Canada could come up with techniques that erased or eased these great national tensions, remembrance symbols and rituals would divide or even irrevocably split the country.

In 1928, the government created an Armistice Ceremonial Committee to revitalize Armistice Day. By 1931, the government had received Royal Assent to create a separate federal holiday for Thanksgiving and for Armistice Day, but it was left to individual provinces and cities to decide whether or not it would be turned into a paid holiday. Armistice Day was then renamed Remembrance Day.

In 1935, more confident in the new approach, even the city of Montreal cut its power for 2 minutes on the 11th hour of the 11th month, so no work or travel could be done, as King George V had requested, in 1921. That year, Toronto had a gathering of 50,000 in front of City Hall to commemorate Remembrance Day, their largest ever.

According to historian Jonathan Vance, after the 1938 Munich Agreements, the Canadian Legion also adjusted. It linked its services not to just to militarism and soldiering but to sacrifice and thanksgiving for peace.

At Ottawa's Remembrance ceremony in 1935, Prime Minister MacKenzie King had the military units salute the Peace Tower of Parliament - formerly called the Victory Tower - instead of the Prime Minister at his podium, as they had done in the past. Clerics linked soldiers to guardians and servants of peace. It was described as "a day to pray for peace but it was not only a day for pacifism".

By 1938, working with the Legion rhetoric, Prime Minister MacKenzie King argued that the Canadian Corps was a symbol of Canadian unity, of comradeship, of a "spirit of unity that can be achieved".

Today, the Canadian poppy is associated with equality and unity of civilians and veterans. Interestingly, it was a Canadian poem, In Flanders Fields, that had spread the use of the poppy for veterans' campaigns and war efforts.

It has been estimated that millions died during the 1,600 days of World War I. Millions more would follow in subsequent wars.

McCrae's poem and the little modest poppy we wear on November 11 help us to remember them all.

Anna de Aguayo was trained as an anthropologist at University of Toronto and London School of Economics in the area of socio-political symbols and systems. She has worked as a researcher with Canadian museums and historic sites.

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