Poppies from the First World War tour country as symbol of hope, resilience

Dried flowers picked by Canadian soldier Lieutenant-Colonel George Stephen Cantlie from the fields and gardens of war-torn Europe, are seen in an exhibition at the Chateau Ramezay Historic Site and Museum Wednesday, October 30, 2019 in Montreal. Two years ago when Heather Campbell was sorting through a box of books she came upon a Bible from her grandmother. Tucked within its pages was a nearly century-old envelope carrying a yellowing letter and a poppy from Flanders Field sent from the First World War. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Dried flowers picked by Canadian soldier Lieutenant-Colonel George Stephen Cantlie from the fields and gardens of war-torn Europe, are seen in an exhibition at the Chateau Ramezay Historic Site and Museum Wednesday, October 30, 2019 in Montreal. Two years ago when Heather Campbell was sorting through a box of books she came upon a Bible from her grandmother. Tucked within its pages was a nearly century-old envelope carrying a yellowing letter and a poppy from Flanders Field sent from the First World War. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Dried flowers picked by Canadian soldier Lieutenant-Colonel George Stephen Cantlie from the fields and gardens of war-torn Europe, are seen in an exhibition at the Chateau Ramezay Historic Site and Museum Wednesday, October 30, 2019 in Montreal. Two years ago when Heather Campbell was sorting through a box of books she came upon a Bible from her grandmother. Tucked within its pages was a nearly century-old envelope carrying a yellowing letter and a poppy from Flanders Field sent from the First World War. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Two years ago when Heather Campbell was sorting through a box of books she came across a Bible from her grandmother. Tucked inside was an envelope carrying a yellowing letter and a poppy from Flanders Fields sent during the First World War.

“When I discovered that poppy in the Bible it was like — I don’t know if this is going to sound silly — it was almost like a tap on the shoulder, a quiet yet powerful whisper from the past,” Campbell said in a recent interview.

“I was really quite shocked.”

That poppy was among the many flowers that her great-grandfather, lieutenant-colonel George Stephen Cantlie, sent home with letters to his family. Cantlie served as the first commander of the 42nd Battalion of the Royal Highlanders of Canada.

The flowers are now part of a touring exhibit called War Flowers that is on display at the Chateau Ramezay Historic Site and Museum of Montreal until early January. It will then move to Edmonton.

“This exhibit tells stories in a way that balances hope and love with reality, reaching across continents,” said Campbell, who is a registered nurse in Toronto.

Cantlie enlisted when he was 48 years old in 1915. He fought in battles in Belgium and France.

He sent his wife and one of his five children pressed flowers from the battlefield with his letters.

In a recording shared by Campbell her late aunt Elspeth Angus, who was Cantlie’s grand-daughter, describes how he came about his daily ritual.

“Every night, without fail while he was over there, he wrote two letters. During the day … he would pick a flower no matter what it was, whether it was a dandelion or a rose, a forget-me-not, or a daisy, and put it between two pieces of paper that he had brought over with him and press it in a book to dry out so he could use it.”

The letters to his baby daughter Celia were only a few words long.

In one dated July 4, 1916, he wrote: “Dear Wee Celia: With much love from Daddy. At the front Flanders. 1916.” Folded inside is a twig with red poppies.

Another letter dated “Flanders, At the Front. 28.6.16,” contains daisies. “Dear Wee Celia,” it reads. “From the trenches and shell holes with much love from Daddy.”

Campbell said the letters and flowers are “probably a translatable story into any time of war, any type of adversity.”

“Maybe this is a universal message to everyone that people do survive the best they can,” she said.

“They still can find beauty amidst things that are pretty horrific, and we should celebrate that and remember that. It’s really symbolism, isn’t it?”

Her mother described Cantlie as kind and gentle. He died aged 89 on Aug. 30, 1956, when Campbell was about two years old.

Campbell said her aunt recognized the historical significance of the letters she inherited and put the exhibition into motion.

Viveka Melki, the curator of War Flowers, said she was touched by the simplicity of the letters.

“This man sends these letters even in the darkest of times. He sends them to his daughter as a symbol of beauty amongst darkness,” she said.

“He doesn’t write an extensive letter, but he writes what’s essential — I love you.”

Flowers are fragile but they still grew in the middle of battlefields, said Melki.

“Flowers are a strange thing, aren’t they? They almost have a sacred quality to them.”

Nancy Holmes, associate professor of creative and critical studies at the University of British Columbia, said the flowers sent a message of hope.

“And if you send flowers to your family — dried flowers or pressed flowers — they are going to imagine that at least you are some place where there is flowers growing so it can’t be that bad,” she added.

Stacey Barker, a historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, said flowers are not what come to mind when someone thinks about the First World War.

“You think about mechanized warfare and the horrors of the frontline and death and killing and these flowers are really a stark juxtaposition,” said Barker.

She said it was “quite poignant” that Cantlie found “these little bits of life on the battlefield.”

“These little, beautiful, fragile things in the midst of absolute carnage and horror and devastation. He was able to find these living, beautiful, delicate things to send home.”

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Port Alberni’s Special Olympic skaters head to BC Winter Games

Four skaters from Port Alberni will head to Fort St. John to… Continue reading

Alberni bowler proves that age is just a number

Maurice Bernier will be the oldest athlete at the Special Olympics nationals in Thunder Bay

Toronto Maple Leaf alumni face off against Alberni team in charity hockey game

PAACL team ready to face former NHLers in Inclusion Cup

Bryan Mason Memorial Hockey Tournament kicks off in Port Alberni

Alberni Valley Bantam Bulldogs open the tournament with a loss to Comox

Port Alberni’s Kin groups celebrate service club’s centennial

Port Alberni’s Kin club has been serving the community for 84 years

VIDEO: Ottawa wants quick, peaceful resolution to pipeline protests, Trudeau says

The protests have manifested themselves as blockades on different rail lines across the country

Canucks acquire forward Tyler Toffoli from Kings in push for playoffs

Vancouver sends Schaller, Madden, pick to L.A.

New highway proposed between Alberta and B.C.

The route would connect Red Deer to Kamloops

Wet’suwet’en and B.C. government have been talking Aboriginal title for a year

Coastal GasLink says it has agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the 670-kilometre route

Trudeau tightlipped on plan to end protests ‘quickly and peacefully’

The prime minister, who cancelled a two-day trip to Barbados this week to deal with the crisis at home

B.C. budget expected to stay the course as economic growth moderates

Finance minister said ICBC costs have affected budget

Canadian standards for coronavirus protection to be reviewed, health agency says

The protocols set out how health workers should protect themselves and their patients

Monday marks one-year anniversary of man missing from Langley

42-year-old B.C. man, Searl Smith, was last seen leaving Langley Memorial Hospital on Feb. 17, 2019

BC Ferries sailings filling up Family Day Monday

More than 20 sailings added between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen for long weekend

Most Read