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

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: RDN’s essential services maintained during pandemic

Regional District of Nanaimo chairman thanks residents for co-operation and understanding

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Clarity on COVID-19 locations would help

Why can’t Island Health just say the city where cases occur, asks letter writer

Nanaimo bylaw officers on the lookout for COVID-19 control infractions

Bylaw and health officers watch for health order infractions, citizens can call in complaints

Nanaimo arenacross racer wins double championship

Sebastian Sulyok takes first overall on Futures West 85cc series

Nanaimo, Royal Jubilee to be Vancouver Island’s COVID-19 frontline hospitals

Other Island hospitals will be admitting COVID-19 patients and will be used in a support role

COLUMN: The other graph that shows B.C. can beat COVID-19

Is the curve being flattened? data on hospitalizations provides a crucial answer.

B.C. clears more acute hospital beds as COVID-19 case growth slows

Province holding about 40% of beds empty for peak still to come

Here’s how to talk to people who aren’t taking physical distancing seriously

Approach the conversation with empathy says conflict expert

Nanaimo will be the community hardest-hit by ferry layoffs, union says

B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union looking at its legal options

75-year-old woman rescued from Cowichan Lake

Victim taken to hospital, but expected to recover

Not to become bored the game plan for COVID-19

Board game with an Island map developed by Island family just the remedy for filling time at home

As 500K+ apply for emergency benefit, Trudeau says aid coming for Canadians left behind

Canada Emergency Response Benefit provides $2,000 per month

UPDATE: UK PM Boris Johnson moved to intensive care after COVID-19 symptoms worse

He has been quarantined in his Downing St. residence since being diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 26

Most Read