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

Forty-eight vaccination clinics will open across Interior Health beginning March 15. (Canadian Press)
48 COVID-19 vaccine clinics to open across Interior Health

Select groups can book appointments starting Monday

Seniors in the Interior Health region can book their COVID-19 vaccinations starting Monday, March 8, 2021 at 7 a.m. (File photo)
Seniors in Interior Heath region can book COVID-19 shots starting Monday

Starting March 8 the vaccination call centre will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily

The two suspects arrested south of 150 Mile House Tuesday, March 2, following a high-speed chase with the RCMP have been charged. (Will Roberts photo)
High-speed chase suspects charged, remain in custody after arrest south of Williams Lake

John Craig and Maggie M. Higgott appeared in Williams Lake Provincial Court March 4

Interior Health reported 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5. (Black Press Files)
Interior Health reports 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5

Over 300,000 vaccine doses have been administered provincewide.

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to Stoney and Minnie lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

Rising accident rates and payout costs have contributed to billion-dollar deficits at ICBC. (Comox Valley Record)
B.C. appealing decision keeping ICBC injury cases in court

David Eby vows to ‘clip wings’ of personal injury lawyers

(Black Press Media files)
Hosts charged, attendees facing COVID fines after Vancouver police bust party at condo

Police had previously received 10 complains about that condo

Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen takes part in an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. A joint federal and B.C. government housing program announced today aims to help people living in up to 25,000 vulnerable households pay their rent. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Federal, B.C. governments announce $517-million rent aid program to help vulnerable

Benefits for those not eligible for B.C.’s Rental Assistance Program or Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters

(BC SPCA)
Is it safe to give your dog some peanut butter? Not always, BC SPCA warns

Some commercial peanut butter ingredients can be harmful to dogs

Health Minister Adrian Dix, front, B.C. Premier John Horgan and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrive for a news conference about the provincial response to the coronavirus, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, March 6, 2020. Pandemic emergency measures have been in place for almost a year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. officials plead for patience as 1.7 million COVID-19 calls flood in

Vaccine registration for 90-plus seniors opened Monday

A West Kootenay man died in an avalanche on March 4 while snowmobiling near Mount Payne, which is indicted by the red flag. Illustration: Google Maps
B.C. father of 3 dead after avalanche in West Kootenay

The man was snowmobiling with a group when incident occurred March 4

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Vaccine hesitancy decreases in B.C. as mass immunizations set to begin: poll

Two-thirds of British Columbians, and Canadians, would get the vaccine as soon as possible

Most Read