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The point of the Remembrance poppy

November 4, 2014
The modern Canadian Remembrance poppy.

The modern Canadian Remembrance poppy.

The blood-red poppy has been associated with war through centuries of Europe conflict but our modern tradition of using it to memorialize soldiers and others who have died in military conflict dates to the Great War which began in Europe in 1914 and  and became known as the First World War.

It was a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. serving in France during the First World War, who wrote the poem In Flanders Fields. He was moved to write it in May of 1915 after burying another Canadian solder and friend who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.

From its first publication in December, 1915, the poem captured the imagination of the public across the British Commonwealth. With its mournful rallying cry from the dead to the living and its vivid use of the red poppy to allude to the blood of the fallen, it became synonymous with the allied war effort and inspired the use of the poppy to symbolize the sacrifice of First World War soldiers.

In January of 1918, John McCrae died in France of complications from pneumonia, 10 months before the First World War ended.

The armistice between the victorious Allied forces and the German Army was signed at a ceremony in Compiègne, France, at 11 a.m. Paris time on the 11th of November, 1918.

This is why Canadians mark Remembrance Day on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. That is when the First World War ended, just over 104 years ago.

The appeal of the poppy ladies

McCrae's poem in a bronze "book" at his bithplace, Guelph, Ontario.

McCrae’s poem in a bronze “book” at his bithplace in Guelph, Ontario. — public domain

The final verse of McCrae’s poem was a call to the living that many found deeply moving:

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.

While the poem helped make the poppy synonymous with the sacrifice of the war, it was largely thanks to the efforts of two women that the poppy became both an important symbol of Remembrance and a means of assisting veterans.

One of these women was Moina Belle Michael, an American working with the YMCA in New York City. She read McCrae’s poem  in November of 1918, just months before the end of the war and responded with her own poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith“, which started:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

Moina Michael also vowed to keep the memory of the fallen soldiers alive — using the red poppy.

The streams of disabled veterans returning from the European war soon convinced her and others that the best way to honour the dead was to help the living.

In 1919 the American Legion was founded by-and-for U.S. veterans of the First World War. And the next year, thanks to Moina Michael’s tireless efforts, the American Legion agreed at their national convention in Cleveland to adopt the poppy as the emblem of Remembrance.

A French woman, Anna E Guérin attended that American Legion convention on behalf of the French YMCA Secretariat. She returned to France inspired by the idea that the sale of artificial poppies could help the living victims of the war — the soldiers, civilians and especially the orphaned children.

Not only did Anna Guérin introduce the Remembrance poppy to France, she was instrumental in introducing it to all the countries that fought on the Allied side in the First World War.

To begin with in 1921 all the artificial poppies sold in the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand came from Guérin’s workshops in France.

The only poppy we know

Original Canadian flocked paper poppy from 1922 and the poppy with the "green bit" that I grew up with. -- Canadian War Museum

An early Canadian poppy and one with the “green bit” that I grew up with. — Canadian War Museum

Inspired by Anna Guérin, the precursor of the Royal Canadian Legion, the Great War Veterans Association of Canada, adopted the poppy as the national symbol of Remembrance in July of 1921.

The first Canadian-made remembrance lapel poppy was produced in 1922.

According to Legion Magazine, disabled veterans, working for Vetcraft Industries Inc., manufactured the flocked cardboard lapel poppies in workshops in Toronto and Montreal under the sponsorship of the Department of Soldiers Civil Re-establishment (later Veterans Affairs).

Vetcraft Industries, which made other things, including toys, continued to supply Canadian poppies for 75 years, until 1996 when — as Legion Magazine explains — “Veterans Affairs Canada decided that it could no longer continue supporting the company”. The Royal Canadian Legion then took over responsibility and contracted poppy manufacture to a private company in Toronto.

Canada’s Remembrance poppy has been made from red flocked plastic for as long as I can remember. Today the solid red “petals” are decorated by a single small, serrated black felt centre which is only held in place by the same steel pin used to fix the poppy to a lapel.

There is evidence that during the 1940s and perhaps as late as the 1970s, the Canadian Remembrance poppy may have been a more realistic fabric flower.

The poppy I remember from my youth was almost exactly like the modern molded plastic kind but with one slight difference — it had an extra “dot” of green felt on top of the black felt.

Many varieties of Remembrance poppies

Every one of the Commonwealth countries, as well as the United States, that use the poppy as a symbol of Remembrance uses a distinctive style of artificial poppy.

Australia’s fabric and wire poppy and New Zealand’s felt and plastic ANZAC poppy.

American Legion poppy and a Veterans of Foreign Wars "Buddy Poppy".

American Legion poppy and an American Veterans of Foreign Wars “Buddy Poppy”.

Royal British Legion's paper poppy with plastic stem.

Royal British Legion’s paper poppy with plastic stem.

I love the point of the Canadian poppy but not of its steel pin

Last year I wrote a post complaining about Canada’s plastic poppies with their steel pins. I compared them unfavorably to the British poppy which was purposely redesigned over a decade ago to be both environmentally-friendlier and to dispense with the dangerous steel pin.

Until last year, I had been unaware that there were different styles of Remembrance poppies. I just assumed they all looked like Canada’s.

Seeing the variety was something of a revelation.

Apparently Remembrance poppies do not have to be made out of 99 percent non-biodegradable plastic and one percent steel straight pin.

Poppies can be made so they don’t almost instantly fall off whatever you pin them on. And they absolutely do not have to be a hazard on the ground waiting for an unsuspecting bike tire or dog’s foot.

I do wish the Canadian Legion could see their way to refresh the design the Canadian poppy to be both more biodegradable and less of a hazard. Supposedly they offer a poppy sticker but I’ve never seen that for sale.

In the meantime I personally favour the idea of being creative and hand-making your own poppy — even as I strongly believe in continuing to donate money to the poppy fund.

However, this year, as I’ve yet to find the necessary art supplies to make my own and seeing as how I’m leaving change in the poppy donation boxes anyways — I’ve availed myself of plastic poppies — three so far.

I managed to keep the first one for all of an hour. The second poppy stayed pinned to my shirt for about half a day thanks to the little “stay” I stuck on the back of the pin. And I’ve now had the third poppy for ten hours and counting.

As I likely lost my first two poppies somewhere in the course of my regular travels, I won’t be at all surprised to find one or both of them — stuck in one of my bicycle tires. Click the images to enlarge them.

I admit the steel pin is a bit of a sore point with me.

I admit the steel pin on the Canadian poppy is a bit of a sore point with me.


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