This post by Andrea Eidinger originally appeared on Unwritten Histories.
This post was inspired by a suggestion from Tina Adcock, and without her support and encouragement, it probably would have remained unwritten. So I would like to send her a huge extra-special thank-you. I would also like to thank the individuals who read and commented on previous versions of this draft, including Tina Adcock, Andrew Nurse, JonWeier, Chris Schultz, and Maj. (ret.) Peter Scales MA. A special thank-you goes to Christina Wakefield for supplying me with information about the 1921 Great War Veterans Association. Finally, many of the points raised in this blog post emerged out of online conversations about wearing poppies, both on Facebook and Twitter. I would like to thank everyone who participated for their contributions and for making this blog post much more nuanced.
A few weeks ago, the Royal British Legion posted a series of images designed to bust some prevalent myths about what poppies mean. One of the comments caught the attention of Tina Adcock and myself:
“Poppies are not pro-war, they are a symbol of respect for those who sacrificed everything for our safety. But not commemorating past wars would mean we don’t learn from history.”
That is one hell of a loaded sentence, especially when we are still in the midst of Monument Wars. But it did make me start realizing that we don’t know very much about the poppy’s history as a symbol in Canada. Since I don’t like unanswered questions, I decided to dig a little bit deeper to see what I could find. In today’s blog post, we’re going to talk about what I uncovered, take a look at the history of the poppy, what it means to wear one, and how we learn from the past.
Poppy History and Historiography
The origins of the Remembrance Day poppy are pretty well known. If you’re like me, you had to memorize and recite “In Flanders Fields,” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae in elementary school. However, what happened after, particularly how they made the jump to Canada, that is rather unclear. I could only find one scholarly article, Deborah Nash-Chambers’ 2015 piece, “Memorializing Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae Civic Commemoration and the 100thAnniversary of ‘In Flanders Fields,’” that dealt with the subject in any way. In it, Nash-Chambers connects the publication of a collection of McCrae’s poems in 1919 to a rise in the idea of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. From there, two women, Moina Michael (who was American) and Anne Guerin (who was French) move to the centre of this relatively poorly known story. Michael was inspired to create the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy Fund after reading a copy of McCrae’s poem, and she resolved to make and sell poppies to raise money for veterans. Guerin organized a group of French widows and orphans who made artificial poppies to sell, using the proceeds to support themselves. In 1921, she visited London and convinced the British Legion to purchase them. From there, disabled British veterans began to produce the poppies themselves. The symbol was then adopted by the American, British, and Canadian Legions, and the first “Poppy Day” was held in Canada and Britain on November 11, 1921.However, the article does not explain how the poppy made the jump from Britain to Canada. Nash-Chambers’ main source for this information was Bev Dietrich, then Curator at the Guelph Civic Museum (since retired), who also published her own piece on the subject “John McCrae and McCrae House: Keeping the Faith for Those Who Died,” in a local magazine; her main source of information appears to be clippings from the scrapbook of Jeanie Matthew McCrae (McCrae’s aunt), held at McCrae House.This same sequence of events was included in an article for The National Post on the history of poppies, by Jon Weier and Chris Schultz.
Even Jonathan Vance’s book on the commemoration of WW I, Death So Noble, only contains a couple of references to poppies. He mentions a couple instances of poppies being used as a symbol in WW I writing, usually as a representation of the good memories of soldiers.I also checked Robert Rutherdale’s book, Hometown Horizons: Local Responses to the Great War. There is one mention of the poppy in this book, and it points to an article by Alan R. Young, ‘“We Throw the Torch’: Canadian Memorials of the Great War and the Mythology of Heroic Sacrifice.”In this piece, Young explains that “McCrae’s poem [has] stuck in the popular memory.”In the next sentence, he says he will explain why this is the case, but the remainder of the piece discusses the crucifixion motif in the mythology of heroic sacrifice.
Christina Wakefield pointed me to a possible solution. A recently published book by the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, Thunder Bay and the First World War, 1914-1919, by Michel S. Beaulieu, David K. Ratz, Thorold J. Tronrud, and Jenna L. Kirker describes a visit by Anna Guerin to Port Arthur, Ontario. According to archival documents, a meeting took place between Guerin and the Great War Veterans’ Association at the Prince Arthur Hotel on July 4, 1921; Guerin argued that the Association should adopt a “poppy day.” Not only did the Association agree, but it also initiated Canada’s first poppy campaign the following November. This campaign sold poppies as both a symbol of remembrance and as a way for members of the public to financially support wounded soldiers.
While this is really important information that helps us to understand how the poppies came to Canada, it also deepens the mystery. You see, the Great War Veterans’ Association is not the same thing as the Legion. The Great War Veterans’ Association was one of a number of veterans advocacy groups that sprung up in the immediate aftermath of the war. The Legion, on the other hand, was only established in 1925, and was an amalgamation of several of the previous veterans organizations, including the Great War Veterans’ Association. It remains unclear, so far as I can tell, why the Legion adopted the poppy and how the poppy came to be so indelibly associated with the organization.
This is not simply a meander down historiographical memory lane, but an interesting perspective as to where our symbols come from and how the process of adopting symbols is — or, it seems, is not — recorded.. The fact that no one seems to know for certain exactly how the poppy was adopted is bothersome. There is a similar lack of historical research on traditions for Thanksgiving in Canada and Victoria Day. This makes me suspicious and raises a number of important questions: When I wear a poppy, what does that mean? What kinds of engagement with the past and present does it suppose? Can we remember past conflicts without wearing poppies on our breasts every November? Continue reading