Pondering the poppy

Little known facts about Remembrance Day flower


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It always happens at this time of year.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/11/2017 (1956 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It always happens at this time of year.

Without fail, some public figure — an entertainer, a politician, a professional athlete — will come under fire for failing to wear a poppy in honour of Remembrance Day.

This is especially true in Great Britain, where media pundits and social media users are always ready to cry foul when a celebrity appears without a poppy.

Last weekend, for instance, British TV viewers were seeing red when X Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger, the former Pussycat Dolls singer, appeared on the show in a revealing lace dress without one of the flowers, whereas the rest of the judging panel were sporting poppies.

Outraged viewers took to Twitter to slam the singer, with one writing: “#SimonCowell can you nip out in the ad break and get Nicole a poppy? Badly knitted girl seems to have forgotten one.”

Following an ad break, Nicole returned to TV screens with a glittering poppy brooch in full view of the cameras.

After the online backlash, the 39-year-old X Factor judge explained her poppy simply fell off en route to the stage.

“I’m always late, it fell off running to the stage and replaced it as soon as we could!” she tweeted. “I have the utmost respect for everything it stands for.”

What with this being the eve of Remembrance Day, this seems like the perfect time for today’s respectful list of the Top Five Things You Might Not Know About The Beloved Poppy:

5) Is that a poppy on your lapel or are you spying on me?

Umbrellas that fire poison darts. Lipstick tubes that double as guns. Martini olives that contain tiny microphones. We expect secret agents to be armed with an impressive array of spy gadgets, but poppies? Well, it turns out that back in 2007, suspicious U.S. contractors mistook Canada’s harmless poppy quarter — the world’s first colourized coin, featuring the red inlaid image of a poppy over a maple leaf — for a high-tech espionage device. According to once-secret U.S. government reports and emails, the contractors stumbled on our colourful coins while travelling in Canada and later described the suspicious quarters as “anomalous” and “filled with something man-made that looked like nano-technology.” After finding a coin in the cup holder of his rental car, one U.S. contractor wrote: “It did not appear to be electronic (analog) in nature or have a power source… under high-power microscope, it appeared to be complex, consisting of several layers of clear but different material, with a wire-like mesh suspended on top.” What had the contractors worked into a lather was, in fact, simply the protective coating the Royal Canadian Mint applied to the coins to ensure the poppy’s red colour wouldn’t rub off. The mint produced nearly 30 million such quarters in 2004 to commemorate Canada’s 117,000 war dead.

Another confidential account reveals one contractor believed someone had placed two of the quarters in an outer coat pocket after he had emptied the pocket hours earlier. These accounts, according to news reports in 2007, led to a sensational warning from the U.S. Defence Security Service, an agency of the Defence Department, that mysterious coins with radio frequency transmitters were found planted on U.S. contractors with classified security clearances on at least three occasions as they travelled through Canada in 2005 and 2006. Canadian intelligence officials were not overly amused. “That story about Canadians planting coins in the pockets of defence contractors will not go away,” Luc Portelance of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service sighed at the time.

4) Only in Canada? Well, not quite.

Wearing a poppy at this time of year is definitely a Canadian thing. Bright-red flowers pinned to lapels have been our official symbol of reverence and remembrance since 1921. In 2015, according to the Royal Canadian Legion, which conducts the annual poppy campaign, more than 21 million were distributed throughout the country. In 2014, poppy sales raised $16.5 million for services for veterans and their families. Our version is a simple piece of red flocked polyethylene, 4.5 centimetres in diameter, heat-moulded and die-cut into the shape of a poppy, with a little black scalloped centre. Until 1996, Canada’s veterans made poppies at facilities in Toronto and Montreal. When they could no longer meet demand, a custom manufacturer in Toronto took over the job. In 2014, another contractor was brought in when the first factory couldn’t keep up. According to news reports, human hands are still required to affix the black centre to the flower with a pin, including volunteers and even federal prisoners. A 2014 Financial Postreport states 48 inmates at 10 minimum-security and healing lodge prisons in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta assembled 2.4 million poppies that year.

Today, the poppy is a prominent symbol of remembrance in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The Royal British Legion distributed 45 million in 2010 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, while three million poppies were sent to 120 countries outside the U.K., according to the BBC. Those were mostly shipped to British expats in Spain, Germany and France, though poppies also go to embassies in Argentina, Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka. In Scotland, an estimated five million poppies are distributed annually by Poppyscotland. The Scottish poppies feature four red petals and no leaf, whereas the British version has two petals and a single green leaf. In the United States, the first country to wear poppies, the symbol is not as popular as it once was. “The 11th day of November is known as Veterans Day, when a more common adornment on the lapel is a red, white and blue ribbon,” the BBC notes. “But there are some poppies laid and worn for Memorial Day in May in parts of the U.S.”

3) A poppy by any other colour.

It is impossible to think about the poppy without visualizing its iconic red petals and black centre. But there have been a few tweaks over the years. In 1980, the centre of the Canadian poppy changed to green, because some felt it reflected the fields where battles were fought. In 2002, the centre of the poppy reverted to the traditional black, because the real flower has a black centre. While it’s not overly common in Canada, white poppies are the symbol of choice for some people as what they see as a pacifist alternative to the red poppy. The concept of the white poppy sprang up in the U.K. in 1926, with its supporters saying they wanted a symbol that commemorated all victims of war regardless of race, creed, gender or age. The Co-operative Women’s Guild began selling white poppies in 1933 and, in 1934, the Peace Pledge Union took over the task. The union says its version differs in that it recognizes and commemorates the victims of all wars and does not glamorize conflict. Critics say the traditional red poppy already covers the sentiments claimed for the white flower, such as remembering all victims of war. They argue the white symbol undermines the message of remembrance.

White poppies are growing in popularity on the West Coast, according to the Bowen Island Undercurrent. “The white poppy also mourns the environmental devastation that war causes,” the paper argues. In a scathing 2013 editorial, the Globe and Mail slammed activists for suggesting red poppies celebrate war. “Red poppies — not white — grow in those devastated battlefields,” the paper opined. “For those who fought, the flower’s vivid colour was not political. It was heartbreaking, and evoked the blood of fallen comrades.” There are also purple poppies, created by Animal Aid in Britain to commemorate animal victims of war. It was recently updated with a purple paw symbol that can be worn all year round.

2) Why do we wear them in the first place?

According to the Royal Canadian Legion, the significance of the poppy can be traced back to the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, more than 110 years before it was adopted as an official symbol in Canada. “Records from that time indicate how thick poppies grew over the graves of soldiers in the area of Flanders, France,” the legion website states. “Fields that had been barren before battle, exploded with the blood-red flowers after the fighting ended. During the tremendous bombardments of the war, the chalk soils became rich in lime from rubble, allowing the ‘papaver rhoeas’ to thrive. When the war ended, the lime was quickly absorbed and the poppy began to disappear.” Now flash forward to the First World War, when Ontario-born Lt.-Col. John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer, famously penned the immortal poem In Flanders Fields on a scrap of paper after the tragic death of a fellow soldier and dear friend. Three years later, McCrae’s poem — “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row” — inspired Moina Michael, a member of the staff of the American Overseas YMCA. Michael was so moved by the poem, she made a vow with far-reaching implications. “In a high moment of white resolve, I pledged to keep the faith and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of keeping the faith with all who die,” she later recalled.

Michael led a successful campaign to have the American Legion recognize the poppy as the official symbol of remembrance in 1920. At a conference that year, Frenchwoman Anna E. Guérin, inspired by McCrae’s poem and Michael’s leadership, began to fight for the poppy. Her organization, the American and French Children’s League, sold cloth copies of the flower to help raise money to re-establish war-devastated areas in Europe, according to the Canadian War Museum’s website. “In 1921, Guérin travelled to Britain and Canada on behalf of the poppy and convinced both the recently formed British Legion and the Canadian Great War Veterans Association (a predecessor of the Canadian Legion) to adopt the poppy as their symbol of remembrance as well. The first ‘Poppy Day’ in both countries occurred on Nov. 11, 1921.” Today, thanks to a poem, the poppy flourishes on millions of lapels every November.

1) It almost ended up in the garbage.

It can be hard, so many years later, to separate truth from legend. But the legend surrounding the immortal poem In Flanders Fields, famously written by Canadian Lt.-Col. John McCrae of Guelph, Ont., is that it was almost thrown away as garbage shortly after it was written. The poem was spawned by McCrae’s grief over the death of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, an officer in the 2nd Battery, 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. Helmer was killed by a direct hit from a German shell on the morning of May 2, 1915, as he left his dugout. The next day, Sgt.-Maj. Cyril Allinson was delivering mail and reportedly spotted the Canadian doctor sitting at the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station beside a canal a few hundred yards north of Ypres, Belgium. McCrae was writing In Flanders Field — and, by some accounts, he dashed it off in 20 minutes — with Allinson looking on in silence. “His face was very tired but calm as he wrote,” Allinson recalled. “He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave.” When he was done, the grieving Canadian handed the poem to Allinson, who was overwhelmed. “The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed just an exact description of the scene.”

What happened next is the stuff of legend. By many accounts, McCrae, dissatisfied with his work, crumpled the paper on which he’d written his masterpiece and casually tossed it away. It was reportedly retrieved by Allinson, or another member of his unit, possibly Col. Edward Morrison or J.M. Elder. Whoever did it, helped persuade the poet to submit the poem for publication. The rest is history, without which, we would not be proudly pinning on our poppies to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice.


Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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