By Brian Roulston
At the time Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrea of Guelph Ontario did not realize the significance of the poppy as a lasting memorial symbol, he simply observed the poppies growing in an otherwise barren war field and among the graves of the dead soldiers. After writing the poem it is said he threw the poem away. Another soldier picked it up, eventually making its way to the London-based magazine Punch which published it on December 8th,1915.
John McCrea would die before ever knowing how it inspired and helped so many, including his fellow soldiers during and after the war.
Two ladies took inspirations from that poem. Both were heavily involved in fundraising efforts for war veterans even before the U.S entered the war.
Moina Belle Michael (The Poppy Lady) was born to a wealthy family, owners of a cotton plantation in Good Hope, Georgia. Moina, a school teacher was in Germany when the war broke out, she went to Rome in order to get back to the U.S. While in Rome she assisted in helping more than 12,000 American tourists get back home.
It was on the Saturday before Armistice Day November 9,1918 while at a YMCA conference in New York City a young soldier placed a magazine on her desk which featured John McCrea’s poem ‘We Shall Not Sleep’, later named ‘In Flanders Fields’. It was the last verse that inspired Moina,
‘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’.
Just then 3 men came up to her with a cheque for $10 in appreciation of her efforts during the conference…a pleasant surprise. She told the 3 men that she shall wear a poppy every year and told them why by showing them John McCrea’s poem. The men asked permission to take the material up to the conference, later they returned asking for poppies to wear in memory of those who died in Flanders Fields. However, she had none, she told them if they would return later she would get them. She looked everywhere in New York, finally she found one large poppy for her desk and two dozen small ones fashioned after those in Flanders.
Because this was the first group ever to ask for poppies to wear in memory of the soldier dead, and since this group gave her the money (the $10 cheque) with which to buy them, Moina Michaels always considered that She, then and there, consummated the first sale of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy.
Moina Michaels even wrote a poem, a worthy compliment to In Flanders Fields called ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’.
Madame Guérin (Anna Alix Boulle) aka ‘The Poppy Lady of France’ was the oldest of two daughters born February 5,1878 to farming parents in a small picturesque little village, a winter wonderland of sorts known as Vallon Ardeche, Rhine-Alpes in Southern France. Anna was a very independent, motivated, passionate, free spirited young lady. She could inspire everyone who heard her speak. Anna Guérin with two young daughters of her own ran a school for 12 years. Anna wanted nothing more than to see indigenous girls reach their full potential. She taught in Britain for 4 years. In 1914, she went to the U.S initially, as an ‘Alliance Française’ lecturer. She was passionate about the French culture, language and education.
On Oct 8,1919 Madame Guérin addressed the Gold Star Mothers of Baltimore’s 1st convention, many of these ladies were mothers who lost sons in France. First reading ‘In Flanders Fields’, she then proposed the idea of poppies being the “symbol befitting the heroes of the war”. The proposal was accepted.
In September 1920, the American Legion was the first of the First World War inter-allied veterans’ groups to adopt the poppy as a remembrance emblem – after Madame Guérin was invited to speak about her ‘Inter-Allied Poppy Day’ idea at their convention.
Veteran groups of the British Empire nations (the ‘Commonwealth’ today) followed. Canada’s ‘Great War Veterans Association’ the predecessor to the Canadian Legion was the first of these Empire groups and, as such, set an important precedent to all the others. The Empire’s first national Poppy Days began in November 1921, although New Zealand’s was held a year later in April 1922.
Today, thousands of volunteers in more than 1400 Canadian Legion Branches across the country will head out in their local communities to distribute more than 21 million poppies and other materials to raise money for programmes such as help for service men & women adjusting to civilian life, mental health issues and PTSD( Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome),helping homeless vets and many more projects.
Please give generously so we may continue to Carry the Torch.