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 RemiorzDried 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 RemiorzDried 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 RemiorzDried 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

The City of Nanaimo will further investigate an initiative to set up two 12-cabin sites to create transitional emergency housing for people experiencing homelessness. (Black Press file photo)
City of Nanaimo will ask for expressions of interest to operate tiny cabin sites

Staff expresses concern about workload, councillor says sheltering people must take priority

Capt. Alan Millbank, head of Nanaimo Fire Rescue’s Fire and Loss Prevention Division, takes photos of the scene of a blaze that heavily damaged two apartments on Wakesiah Avenue on Sunday, April 18. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
RCMP, Nanaimo Fire Rescue investigating suspicious apartment blaze

Fire destroyed ground-floor apartment, spread to second storey at Wakesiah Avenue complex

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks at a press conference Monday, April 18. (B.C. Government image)
New COVID-19 cases tick down on the central Island

New cases held to single digits three days in a row

Chakalaka Bar & Grill remains open in defiance of orders from Island Health to close. (Cole Schisler photo)
Island Health seeks injunction against restaurant defying COVID-19 orders

VIHA says Chakalaka Bar and Grill also violating water and sewer regulations with RV hook-ups

Nanaimo RCMP hope the public can help them find a 16-year-old who has been missing since Sunday. (Photo submitted)
UPDATE: 16-year-old Nanaimo boy located safe

Teen had been reported missing last week and it was thought he may have left town

Capt. Alan Millbank, head of Nanaimo Fire Rescue’s Fire and Loss Prevention Division, takes photos of the scene of a blaze that heavily damaged two apartments on Wakesiah Avenue on Sunday, April 18. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
RCMP, Nanaimo Fire Rescue investigating suspicious apartment blaze

Fire destroyed ground-floor apartment, spread to second storey at Wakesiah Avenue complex

Paramedic Matthew Schlatter of Victoria is living a fuller life today due to the double lung transplant he received in 2019. He encourages B.C. residents to register as an organ donor and let their families know their wishes. (Instagram/Matthew Schlatter)
B.C. man living a full, active life after double-lung transplant

Matt Schlatter encourages people to register as an organ donor to help others live

Pat Kauwell, a semi-retired construction manager, lives in his fifth-wheel trailer on Maxey Road because that’s what he can afford on his pension, but a Regional District of Nanaimo bylaw prohibits using RVs as permanent dwellings, leaving Kauwell and others like him with few affordable housing options. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Housing crunch or not, it’s illegal to live in an RV in Nanaimo

Regional District of Nanaimo bylaw forcing pensioner to move RV he calls home off private farm land

Orca 1
Orcas: Our Shared Future finally surfaces at Royal B.C. Museum

Museum dives into the world of the killer whale as delayed feature exhibition now open

Polystyrene has been outlawed as a take-out option for restaurants in Tofino and Ucluelet. (Black Press Media file photo)
Styrofoam done as a takeout option on Island’s Pacific Rim

Tofino and Ucluelet ban polystyrene take-out containers

The City of Nanaimo’s finance and audit committee has recommended spending $200,000 from reserves on a feasibility study and conceptual designs for a community centre in the south end. (News Bulletin file photo)
City of Nanaimo will study options for south-end community centre

Finance committee recommends spending $200,000 from reserves for feasibility study and concept plans

(Photo by Mojpe/Pixabay)
Canadian kids extracting record amounts from Tooth Fairy

Our neighbours in the U.S. receive slightly less from Tooth Fairy visits

Nanaimo NightOwls. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo NightOwls cancel season due to COVID-19

Baseball team’s inaugural season in West Coast League will have to wait until 2022

(New Westminster Police)
4 youth arrested after 30-person brawl in New Westminster leaves 1 seriously injured

Police are looking for witnesses who saw the incident take place

Most Read