I wear a poppy. Most of us do. I imagine a place where all poppies and their pins end up. I can’t seem to keep one in its place on my jacket for more than an hour before I notice its absence. I never witness the fall. I don’t retrace my steps and find it waiting in the driveway to be retrieved or on the sidewalk behind me. Where do the poppies go? I don’t mind purchasing replacements, but I scratch my head as to the whereabouts of these wandering expressions of respectful remembrance.
How did the poppy become the symbol of Remembrance Day? Most of us memorized In Flanders Fields as school children, but I wasn’t aware the poppy was a native plant that grew along the more than four hundred mile stretch through France and Belgium, from the border of Switzerland to the North Sea, called the Western Front during the First World War, before we knew world wars would have to be numbered sequentially. This stretch of land was considered the decisive front and much of the world remembers the war from the battles along this specific piece of geography.
John McCrae was a Canadian poet, physician, author, and artist. He was born in Guelph on November 30, 1872. His poem was inspired by the loss of one of his closest friends, killed in the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium’s Flanders region on May 2, 1915. Alexis Helmer was buried in a makeshift grave marked by a simple cross built of wood. The Canadian line was unbroken for more than two weeks in that battle, holding the Germans back who were attacking French positions with chlorine gas. “For seventeen days,” McCrae wrote in a letter to his mother, describing the incessant gunfire and “behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” McCrae penned the poem on May 3, the day after the loss of his close friend, during a brief rest period. The poem has become the most quoted poem from the war. Lieutenant-Colonel McCrae succumbed to pneumonia near the end of the war. He was buried with full military honours. His horse Bonfire walked ahead of the parade of mourners with McCrae’s boots reversed in the saddle’s stirrups. Bonfire had been with McCrae from his time in Quebec. McCrae is buried in Wimereux Cemetery in France with 220 Canadians.
66,000 Canadian soldiers died in World War I, with more than 172,000 wounded. 620,000 Canadian forces were engaged in the war of which 39% died. In 1921, veterans’ groups chose the poppy to be their symbol of remembering those who served and those who died. The Canadian Legion was formed in 1925 and today Legion members do the work of providing access to poppies for Canadians.
As the years increase between the horrors of The Great War and now, it would be easy to become cavalier in how we participate in remembering, in how we pay tribute to those who held the line to ensure our freedom. Democracy is under threat in many countries around the world and perhaps now more than ever it is important to remember the sacrifice made by so many to ensure democracy was protected and to be aware of democracy’s fragile nature.
I will keep buying poppies, will keep glancing down at the left side of my chest to ensure the poppy is still there. We aren’t remembering war as the solution to a threat, but rather to be aware of what led to war in the first place, what signs existed that should have been heeded, how very essential freedom is for every one of us in our daily lives.
McCrae reminded us with the final words of his poem, a poem that became almost instantly known worldwide – 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.