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Planting poppies to remember the Great War

City staff and Grade 2 students plant poppies in Abbotsford, BC, to commemorate World War I. (Photo Credit: Alex Butler/The Abbotsford News)

City staff and Grade 2 students plant poppies in Abbotsford, BC, to commemorate the First World War. (Photo Credit: Alex Butler/The Abbotsford News)

The assassination of Austria’s archduke, Franz Ferdinand, on 28 June 1914 is widely regarded as the flashpoint for the start of the First World War. 2014 marks the centenary of the ‘war to end all wars.’

Teresa Glover never set out to be a campaigner – but the retiree from Cobourg, Ontario is quickly making a name for herself as the force behind a nationwide movement to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

It all began in February, when Glover’s husband, John, casually mentioned the war anniversary while going through some family genealogy.

“I said then that we should plant poppies all over our garden to honour this important centenary,” Glover says. “By morning I thought I would run it by the mayor of my town.”

Glover was somewhat surprised by the mayor’s immediate, enthusiastic response to the idea. The mayor, Gil Brocanier, agreed to plant 100 red poppies close to the beach along Lake Ontario and place a small plaque to let people know why they were planted.

Inspired by this initial positive response, Glover decided to email more mayors across Canada, urging them to do the same in their towns. To date, 85 towns and cities – from Newfoundland to British Columbia – have notified her of their intention to participate in the initiative.

Glover also contacted garden clubs, asking them to encourage their members to plant poppies in their own gardens. Her hope is that thousands of people will make the effort to plant the little red flower that has come to symbolize all those who fought in the Great War.

Teresa Glover contacted towns across Canada, encouraging them to plant poppies. (Photo Credit: John Glover)

Teresa Glover contacted towns across Canada, encouraging them to plant poppies. (Photo Credit: John Glover)

“I had a vision of poppies growing across the country this summer, and of people being able to see them as they drive around Canada,” says the 64-year-old, who moved to Cobourg from Richmond Hill with her husband after they retired over a year ago.

For many people, the poppy’s association with war veterans comes through Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s famous poem, ‘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.

The poem was written in 1915, after the Canadian line suffered a prolonged and brutal onslaught by the German army in the Flanders region of Belgium, now known as the Second Battle of Ypres. The Germans unleashed thick clouds of chlorine gas over the trenches, causing over 6,000 Canadian casualties in the first 48 hours of battle.

“For 17 days and 17 nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally,” McCrae, a Canadian army physician, wrote in a letter to his mother.

“In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for 60 seconds… And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”

The day before he wrote the poem, McCrae suffered the loss of one of his closest friends, Alexis Helmer, in the fighting. Helmer was buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross next to hundreds of others. Wild poppies, which thrived in the soil made rich in lime from the debris, rubble and casualties of battle, had begun to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves.

“McCrae’s poem has always been special to me,” says Glover. “I can feel his pain when he wrote that after his friend had been killed. Canada suffered such a huge loss in that war that I think every small village, town and city would have lost someone.”

Poppies grow easily from seeds sown directly in the garden. (Photo Credit: John Glover)

Poppies grow easily from seeds sown directly in the garden. (Photo Credit: John Glover)

One of the first cities to respond to Glover’s request was St. John’s, Newfoundland. The mayor recently confirmed that the town has planted 100 poppies in front of the statue of the ‘Fighting Newfoundlander’, in Bowring Park.

Edmundston, New Brunswick planted their poppies in a small garden near the municipal airport, close to one of only six remaining Lancaster bombers to survive in Canada. There since 1964, it is the only one on outdoor display and has been a tangible way for the town to pay homage to war veterans.

In Abbotsford, British Columbia, members of the Royal Canadian Legion joined Grade 2 students to plant 100 poppies at a cenotaph in Civic Plaza.

Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, is taking a community approach, planting some poppies in front of Town Hall, and also bringing in the Legion, the Masonic Lodge, the Historic Gardens and a local nursery. Sandi Millett-Campbell, who coordinates planning, heritage and marketing for the town, says the town’s council was very supportive of the idea and asked that it be communicated to citizens through newsletters and other outreach. The goal is for there to be poppies throughout the town this summer.

“It is such a simple thing to ask,” explains Glover, who lost a great-uncle in the First World War, “It’s a way of saying that we have not forgotten the sacrifices made for us all so long ago.”

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