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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why the Poppy?

The tradition of wearing poppies in honor of Canada's war dead takes its origin from the poem "In Flanders Fields," written in 1915 by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. McCrae was a Canadian Medical Officer during the First World War. His poem reflects his first hand account of what he witnessed while working from a dressing station on the bank of the Yser Canal at Ypres, in Belgium .
On April 22, the Germans used deadly chlorine gas against Allied troups in a desperate  attempt to create movement on one side or the other. Even though the effects of the gas were terrible, Canadian soldiers continued to fight without giving up, and  held the line for another 16 days.
In the trenches, John McCrae tended hundreds of wounded soldiers every day where he  was surrounded by the dead and the dying. In a letter to his mother, he wrote of the Battle of Ypres.
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.(Prescott. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)
The day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae's closest friends was killed in the fighting and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. Unable to help his friend or any of the others who had died, John McCrae gave them a voice through his poem. It was the second last poem he was to write.

                                 In Flanders Fields                                                                                                          by John McCrae

       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 poem was a great inspiration in adopting the poppy as the Flower of Remembrance in Canada, France, the U.S, Britain and Commonwealth countries. The first poppies were distributed in Canada in 1921.Today people wear the red poppies during the month of November and at war memorials on November 11th. The poppies may be worn or placed singly as wreaths.The volunteer donations from the distribution of millions of poppies is an important source of revenue for the Royal Canadian Legion that goes toward helping ex-servicemen and women buy food, and obtain shelter and medical attention.At public gatherings in Ottawa and around the country, Canadians pay tribute with two minutes of silence to the country's fallen soldiers from the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Afghanistan conflict and peacekeeping missions.

Watch and listen to this poem being read out loud. If you can, follow along, or read it at the same time - slowly and solemnly as it is meant to be read


  1. November, 11th is the day we should always keep the deep memories for those people who contributed their lives in human’s peace career. For their sacrificed spirits, everyone should never forget them. In China, we have same meaning holiday as Canada, it’s called Tomb-sweeping Day in spring. When Tomb-sweeping Day is coming, every city has ceremony for helping people remember those people who sacrificed their treasure lives during the war in the past. In my memery, one Canadian is very special for all the Chinese people,he is Dr. Norman Bethune, born in Ontario, Canada in 1890, came to China in 1938. Then he presided the building of hospital and the establishing of the hygiene schools. He compiled various teaching materials and taught students in person. In the autumn of 1939, he intended to return back, but he gave up in order to help the patients. He, due to the infection, died on November 25th. Though he has passed away, he is the hero in Chinese's mind and will be remembered by all the Chinese people.
    Today, I really want to put one red poppy on his grave to show my esteem for him.

  2. When I went to there in that morning, I saw many people had already stood the square more seriously and every people wore a red flower whose name I didn’t know, I also got one and wore it like other Canadian, later I knew its name was poppy.

    Some young people stood in the front of the monument of Victory square and read some poem loudly, some veterans wore metal military decoration also stood there row on row. When the 11 o’clock was coming, every people pay tribute with two minutes silence. I was shocked on that moment, and I wanted to cry.

    I understood that although every country remembered their heroes in different ways on the different day, people never forgot them! People all knew that our peace, our country, and everything all are from their sacrifices, so we should remember them forever.

    Lest to forget.

  3. Last year I attended Remembrance Day ceremony at Victory square, Vancouver. I just felt curious how Canadian remembers the men and women who died in war, and I also wanted to compare with the difference between Canada and China in the ceremony.

  4. Rickey and Yini,

    Thank you both for your comments. I'm happy that this issue means something to you and that you are gaining some insight into important Canadian values. As you can see, we are not terribly different. We both honour our dead.


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