The poppy’s journey to become a sacred symbol began in 1915

War artist Richard Jack portrays the Canadian stand during the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April to 25 May 1915). Jack did not witness the battle. He painted this enormous work of art (canvas size: 12 feet x 19 feet) in his London studio. Jack’s painting remains an iconic work from the First World War. (Canadian War Museum, 19710261-0161)War artist Richard Jack portrays the Canadian stand during the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April to 25 May 1915). Jack did not witness the battle. He painted this enormous work of art (canvas size: 12 feet x 19 feet) in his London studio. Jack’s painting remains an iconic work from the First World War. (Canadian War Museum, 19710261-0161)
Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, left, seen in 1912, and Lieutenant Owen Hague, seen in 1914, both died from the same exploding shell during the Second Battle of Ypres on May 2, 1915. Helmer’s death inspired John McCrae to write “In Flanders Fields.” (Public Domain)Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, left, seen in 1912, and Lieutenant Owen Hague, seen in 1914, both died from the same exploding shell during the Second Battle of Ypres on May 2, 1915. Helmer’s death inspired John McCrae to write “In Flanders Fields.” (Public Domain)
John McCrae circa 1914 by William Notman and Son. (Guelph Museums, Reference No. M968.354.1.2x)John McCrae circa 1914 by William Notman and Son. (Guelph Museums, Reference No. M968.354.1.2x)
No Man’s Land is seen in Flanders Fields circa 1919. The photo was taken by William Lester King of Millersberg, Ohio. (Photo courtesy Military Intelligence Div., General Staff, U.S. Army.)No Man’s Land is seen in Flanders Fields circa 1919. The photo was taken by William Lester King of Millersberg, Ohio. (Photo courtesy Military Intelligence Div., General Staff, U.S. Army.)

Many people around the world wear poppies on Remembrance Day.

The reason why can be traced to a famous battle from World War I.

The Second Battle of Ypres was fought 105 years ago in Belgium. The battle raged for more than a month from April 22 to May 25 in 1915. Fought in the area of Ypres (now Ieper) on the Western Front, it was the first major battle Canadian soldiers fought in the Great War. The soldiers called the area Flanders Fields.

WAR

Canadian troops distinguished themselves in the pitched trench-warfare battle. They fought through, at great cost, the first major poison gas attack of the war and held a strategically important part of the Allied front lines against incessant German attacks. More than 2,000 Canadians were killed during the month-long skirmish, while another 4,000 were wounded or captured.

SEE ALSO: WWII veteran Hans Andersen recalls his time fighting in Europe

Under a constant German artillery bombardment, it would literally rain fire. Exploding shells destroyed soldiers instantly. Rats, disease, and trench foot—ubiquitous in the riven earth of Flanders and all the hellish places on the Western Front—added to the soldiers’ torment.

It was in the depths and death of this five-week firestorm that Flanders Fields and the poppy began a journey that would end with them both having a sacred place in the hearts of all Canadians—and many around the world.

DEATH

It was early on a Sunday morning—May 2, 1915—that Canadian Lieutenants Alexis H. Helmer and Owen C.F. Hague went to check on a Canadian artillery battery. The battery had dug in near the hamlet of Saint-Julien on the bank of the Yser Canal. Helmer and Hague had only ventured about 10 feet away from their positions when a high explosive cannon shell burst and instantly killed Helmer.

The blast threw Hague 30 feet and ripped his femur in half, nearly tearing his left leg completely off. Hague was transported to a field hospital in Hazebrouck, France, but died there later in the evening and was interred in the Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery.

After a small ceremony the next day, Helmer was buried in Essex Farm Cemetery, behind the front lines. His grave is now lost.

One of the doctors at the front was Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. Born in 1872, and a veteran of the Boer War, McCrae volunteered at the age of 41 to go to Europe to patch-up wounded soldiers.

SEE ALSO: Cloverdale resident, and Royal Marine, Reginald Wise revisits Battle of Sarande in WWII

Appointed medical officer for 1st Canadian Field Artillery, McCrae worked out of an 8 x 8 foot bunker that he dug out along a dyke behind the Yser Canal. McCrae was good friends with Alexis Helmer, his old militia pal, and was shaken by Helmer’s death amidst the battle he would later call “a nightmare” in a letter to his mother.

McCrae wrote, “The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … 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.”

Every inch of trench, every inch of No Man’s Land, and every inch of dirt behind the Allied lines that McCrae could see was cut and smashed from millions of tonnes of exploded artillery shells. The landscape was more reminiscent of the moon than earth.

POEM

It was in a waking moment from this “nightmare” in Flanders, that McCrae reportedly sat on the back of a field ambulance overlooking Essex Farm and felt moved to write his now famous poem. He saw poppies growing where nothing should.

SEE ALSO: City of Surrey to livestream Veterans’ Square Remembrance Day ceremony this year

They grew in Flanders’ ruptured ground. Both a symbol for McCrae of the soldiers’ blood that nursed their growth and the faint hope—through their flourishing in bitter conditions—that the mens’ deaths weren’t meaningless.

According to legend, McCrae wasn’t happy with In Flanders Fields and tossed the scrap of paper aside when he’d finished writing it. But another soldier picked the paper from the mud, preserving the poem for eternity.

Punch magazine published the poem in 1915 and McCrae became a household name world-wide.

SYMBOL

Inspired by McCrae’s poem, Moina Michael, an American, wrote a poem in response, We Shall Keep the Faith. She chose to wear a poppy year-round to honour the fallen. Michael fought for the American Legion to adopt it as their symbol, which they did at their convention in 1920.

At the same time, a French woman, Anna Guérin, was raising money in the U.S. by selling poppies for a campaign called “Inter-Allied Poppy Day” to support French war widows and orphans. Guérin was asked to speak at the American Legion’s 1920 convention. After the convention, the American Legion tasked Guérin with organizing the first poppy day on U.S. Memorial Day (May 30) in 1921.

After that Memorial Day, Guérin went to Canada (Port Arthur, Ont.) on July 4 to speak to the Great War Veterans Association, in the hopes to sell poppies to the them too. Two days later the GWVA adopted the poppy, which would be worn on Armistice Day. From there, Guérin campaigned for an Inter-Allied Poppy Day in Britain and the practice then spread to Australia and New Zealand.

Eventually, most countries stopped buying Guérin’s French-made poppies and they produced their own.

Though grown from Guérin’s fundraising efforts to help war-torn France, the use of the poppy became firmly rooted in the hearts of Canadians, and citizens of the Commonwealth, as did McCrae’s poem, which has been read at probably every Nov. 11 ceremony in Canada since.

AFTERMATH

Soon after the Second Battle of Ypres, the Canadians were relieved by the British and McCrae was assigned to a Canadian hospital in France. Despite being the chief of medical services, he refused to live in the officers’ huts and chose to stay in a tent, in solidarity with his comrades at the front.

In early 1918, McCrae became very ill. Another victim taken by the Great War, he died Jan. 28 from meningitis and pneumonia. He was buried in Wimereux, France.

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.



editor@cloverdalereporter.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

CanadaFirst World WarRemembrance DayVeterans

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Vintage scrapbooks gave way to Instagram and Facebook. (Photo: Ursula Maxwell-Lewis)
COLUMN: Prince Philip just got on with it—to our surprise

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis reflects on the passing Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Surrey city hall. (File photo)
Surrey council gives final nod to $150.6 million in loans for recreation projects

City will take out loans over 25 years to pay for three major recreation projects in the city centre, Cloverdale and Newton

CBSA seized 64 bricks of suspected cocaine at a border crossing in the Pacific Highway District. (CBSA photo)
$3.5 million worth of suspected cocaine bound for Canada seized in Pacific Highway District

Tractor-trailer hauling personal care products included 64 bricks of suspected coke

A bowl from Obey Poke, part of Joseph Richard Group’s Meal Ticket Brands launch in 2019. The program is now known as Canteen: A Virtual Food Court, at wearethecanteen.ca. (file/submitted photo)
On #TakeoutDay, Surrey restaurants urge direct meal orders, not second-party delivery

Dowtown Surrey BIA says ‘we can help support restaurants that already have a lot on their plates’

Parliament Hill is shown in Ottawa on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The Trudeau government has agreed with the Senate that Canadians suffering solely from grievous and irremediable mental illnesses should be entitled to receive medical assistance in dying — but not for another two years. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick photo)
Self-advocates ‘sad, scared, angry’ over revisions to assisted-death legislation

Bill C-7 was expanded to include access to medically assisted death for non-terminal conditions

Rendering of the community and cultural centre planned to be built on the site of the former residential school building in Lower Post. (Screenshot/Province of BC YouTube channel)
Lower Post residential school building to be demolished, replaced with cultural centre

Project to be funded by federal and provincial governments, Daylu Dena Council

Rich Goulet receives a volunteer award from then Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Contributed)
Petition for Rich Goulet gymnasium keeps growing

More than 4,200 seek honour for Pitt Meadows basketball coach

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Vancouver police say eight people were arrested Wednesday after anti-pipeline protesters blocked off both the entrances and exits to two buildings in the downtown core. (Instagram/Qtcatspictureclub)
8 people arrested after anti-pipeline protestors chain themselves to Vancouver buildings

Cst. Tania Visintin said demonstrators caused ‘a serious safety hazard’ downtown for hours Wednesday

Jamie Coutts recorded a man following her around downtown Vancouver for a half-hour on Wednesday, March 18. (Instagram screenshot/Iammjammbamm)
Man charged in alleged high-profile Vancouver stalking case that went viral online

Man faces five other charges including criminal harassment and assault with a weapon

A new Lower Mainland study will examine feline COVID-19 transmission using data gathered from up to 40 cats living with newly infected adults. (Pixabay)
CDC conducting mobile kitty COVID tests outside of Lower Mainland homes

Researchers are probing whether humans can transmit the coronavirus to household pets

A sea lion swims past the window of an empty viewing area Vancouver Aquarium is pictured Thursday, September 10, 2020. The Vancouver Aquarium has had to close its doors to the public due to the lack of visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
U.S.-based theme park company buys Vancouver Aquarium

Aquarium had to shut its doors in September due to COVID pandemic

Most Read