It may seem strange to our American counterparts that Canadians wear poppies in November. It’s our way of remembering heroes, past and present. It’s a cherished Canadian tradition that was shaped, in no small way, by an American.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In what was once called the Great War (1914-1918), Canada “came of age” as a nation. We faced disasters, triumphs and sacrifices, as did any who fought.
One of our servicemen, gunner and medical officer Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, was present in one of the first German uses of chlorine gas. (Second Battle of Ypres). Less than a month later, after seeing how quickly poppies grew over the graves of the fallen, he penned one of Canada’s most famous and beloved poems. “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.
That war holds special significance to me. My great-grandfather, whose name I bear, fought there. As I understand it, after being wounded earlier, he went on to be a stretcher-bearer in Vimy Ridge, the battle that went on to define Canada’s role in that war. Vimy was the impossible objective that we somehow managed to secure when others had failed. Add the fact that my father and grandfather also served our uniform, and November Eleventh carries weight with me.
And this is where the American influence comes in.
An American Professor by the name of Moina Michael was inspired by that poem. She wrote one of her own, which you may know, in response to McCrae’s entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith”. She also vowed to wear a poppy year-round to remember those who served in war.
She saw disabled servicemen after the war in need of financial and occupational help. She responded in (what used to be called) the American Way. She showed initiative, and devised a solution to the problem she was faced with. She began selling silk poppies to raise money and assist disabled veterans. This led to the American Legion Auxiliary adopting the poppy as its symbol for remembering veterans. Thank-you “Poppy-Lady”!
Canadians took up this tradition, as did the rest of the British Commonwealth; we have worn poppies on our lapels to remember this ever since.
It has become so integrated into Canadian culture that one of the most loathsome and despised forms of petty theft is someone daring to rob a poppy box.
And so, for a very long time, it was something we wore, but nothing more. We wore our poppies with a very Canadian solemn dignity, and some made arrangements to attend formal memorials at the local cenotaph. Now that I’m living in Canada’s capital, that means just a little more for me.
In the year 2000, our war monument was modified to include a tomb of an unknown Canadian Serviceman from the one of the first battles a distinctly Canadian unit fought in. This unknown soldier’s remains were carried with full honors and placed within the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa, a monument that can be seen from the grounds of our Parliament Building.
As usual, on Remembrance Day (as we know it) there was a parade of silver-haired servicemen and women, and their junior counterparts. There were speeches and pipers; songs and prayers; fly-pasts, and the report of the guns.. There was silence for a time, and a conclusion to the formal ceremonies, with the official laying of wreaths to commemorate different groups.
And then, something remarkable happened. And I don’t mind saying it chokes me up just writing about it.
Somebody — nobody knows who — from that thronging crowd of ordinary citizens gathered in the cold at that Tomb of the Unknown Soldier made a distinctly Canadian tribute of honour.
Somebody laid his own poppy on the Tomb. That simple, quiet act of honour was followed by another, and then another. Before long, the whole area was covered in those simple, plastic red poppies.
Nobody knows who did it. But someone did. And we are the richer for it.
There is something that defines a culture more than just politics and economics. Whatever else that “something” might be, one of them must surely be Tradition.
This is one Tradition I shall cherish, and teach my kids to cherish.
Wherever you may be on the Eleventh, and whatever you may do to honour those who served, think of this story. It’s ordinary people doing simple, but extraordinary things who begin the traditions that truly define us. Maybe the next one will be yours.
Lest we forget.
Image: Courtesy of http://echoesfromtheedge.blogspot.com/2010/11/in-flanders-fields.html