[an error occurred while processing this directive] FactsCanada.ca -- Friday Feature 2000-12Fr -- Lest We Forget
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Lest We Forget.

November 10, 2000.

In preparation for the solemn occasion observed tomorrow, Mike gives us some background on Remembrance Day and the symbol that has become synonymous with this day.


Lest We Forget
By Michael Hora (mike@factscanada.com)

Remembrance Day is best known through its symbol, the poppy. This unique, blood-red flower has come to symbolize the sacrifices made by those who fought and died in defence of their country. In Canada alone, over 14 million poppies have been distributed since 1921, the first year they were adopted as the memorial flower. They honour the 116 031 Canadians who have been killed in action.

Although Lt.-Col. John McCrae, the medical doctor who wrote the famous and stirring poem "In Flanders Fields", is widely credited with being the driving force behind its adoption as an almost universally accepted symbol of Remembrance Day's war dead, the explosive growth of the poppy (popaver rhoeas) he noticed following a battle was a phenomenon known to the French during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. A war correspondent noted their prolific growth and remarked upon their blood-red hue immediately after a battle in the same region as one in which McCrae later fought. Unbeknownst to the correspondent and to McCrae was this; the fields of Flanders are largely composed of chalk and, as such, are ill-suited to the growth of the plant. They were rarely seen there prior to the great battles that raged across the region. With the huge artillery barrages rained upon the land, came massive amounts of nitrates -- lime for instance. This freed up the soil and allowed the lime to enter it and to provide the poppy a nurturing medium in which to proliferate. As natural forces took over, the lime was leached away over the few short years that followed the battles and the poppies proclivity was once again reduced to its pre-war levels.

McCrae's poem, written on a scrap of paper in 1915, was first published that same year in "Punch", a British periodical. It, as did McCrae, survived the horrible carnage of Ypres. Sadly though, he did not live much longer and failed to see the end of the event that spurred him to write one of history's most stirring pieces. He died of pneumonia on January 28, 1918, at Boulogne, France. He was 45.

In 1917 an American woman, Moina Michael, an attendant at a New York City YMCA canteen, took up the wearing of the poppy as her way of commemorating the war dead. This was the first known use of it in the manner to which we have become accustomed. She had read McCrae's poem and was deeply touched. Three years later, another woman, this one French, happened to make a visit to the city and was immediately taken by the custom. Madame E. Guerin returned to her native country and put the custom to good use. She had poppies hand-made and sold with the profits destined to help ease the lives of destitute children from war-torn countries. In 1921, based on the efforts and success shown by Guerin's campaign, the first poppies were distributed in Canada. Remembrance Day, and its attendant flower, came into being under the auspices of the Great War Veterans Association's recommendation. Their efforts, and those of a loosely knit coalition of veterans and service groups that eventually became the Royal Canadian Legion, extended the poppy's significance to encompass the memories of all who perished in World War One. These first poppies were made by disabled vets and sold by yet another of the Legion's predecessors, The Canadian Legion of British Empire Service League. This sales umbrella was later expanded to fund all Canadian personnel who had seen action in every war since the Boer War.

Remembrance Day, originally known as Armistice Day, is observed in many countries around the world today, including Germany. The armistice referred to was signed at the end of the First World War. This signing took place on November 11, 1918, and was inked at the eleventh hour of that day. While most of the Commonwealth holds to the Remembrance Day designation, in Newfoundland and Labrador it is still called by its original name. In Great Britain it is also commonly called Poppy Day. In some countries, such as the USA, it is known as Veteran's Day. There the name was changed from Armistice Day to Veteran's Day in 1954, following a presidential decree that came after the end of the Korean conflict. Its history in the US went through a stormy period. Attempts to have it conform to the "Monday Holiday Law", and therefore have it observed on the fourth Monday in October, went into effect in 1971. The public backlash from this move forced Congress to repeal the statute's reach, and seven years later it went back to being held on November 11. A similar period of upheaval was experienced in Canada in 1921 when the day was grouped in with Thanksgiving Day and celebrated on the Monday of the week that contained November 11. This period lasted until 1931. The United Kingdom observes it on the Sunday nearest the 11th.

Remembrance Day is a solemn event and is traditionally marked by a two minute silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November. It is held at war memorials and cenotaphs across Canada. In Ottawa a permanent and daily routine is observed throughout the year at the Peace Tower complex. Opened by the Prince of Wales on August 3, 1927, the Memorial Chamber Centre Block edifice rests on six pillars. A pillar represents each of World War One, World War Two, the Merchant Navy, the Korean War, the Nile Expedition, and the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador. A unique and intriguing feature of this memorial is its perpetual calendar. Every day an honour guard turns the pages of the books containing the names of the war dead to reflect that day's deceased. Another aspect; its main blockhouse is made from stone quarried in Flanders.

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, 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.

- John McCrae

There are links to more stirring poetry, including "Reply to Flanders Fields", at this link.


Please take a moment out of your day tomorrow to remember those who gave their lives so that we might live in a country where we are free to make choices on a daily basis that we now take for granted. Also take a moment to think about those currently serving our country, some of them overseas and in dangerous situations. We owe them a debt of gratitude.



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