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

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

More affordable rental housing is needed in Maple Ridge says a city report. (Black Press Media files)
Report calls for more affordable housing for seniors and families in Maple Ridge

BC Housing conducting virtual dialogue sessions for Maple Ridge residents

Carnival and midway at the Ridge Meadows Home Show. (The News files)
Ridge Meadows Home Show a no-go this year

Executive director Cass Winder disappointed, but hopeful for next year

Construction workers have begun work to repair the Art Infiniti Hotel on the Lougheed Highway in Maple Ridge. (Neil Corbett/The News)
Work underway to repair Maple Ridge hotel damaged by fire

Cause of Art Infiniti hotel fire still under investigation

Logan and Joseph Salembier, Grade 2 students at Maple Ridge Elementary, were featured on this years Variety Show of Hearts Telethon. (Special to The News)
Variety telethon – featuring Maple Ridge twins – raises more than $6 million

The annual event raises money for children across the province with special needs

Dr. Bonnie Henry leaves the podium after a news conference at the legislature in Victoria on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. reports 559 new cases of COVID-19, one death

4,677 cases of the virus remain active in the province; 238 people are in hospital

Vancouver Canucks left wing Antoine Roussel (26) tries to get a shot past Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) during second period NHL action in Vancouver, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canucks cough up 3-0 lead, fall 4-3 to visiting Edmonton Oilers

Vancouver falls to 8-13-2 on the NHL season

Jessica McCallum-Miller receives her signed oath of office from city chief administrative officer Heather Avison on Nov. 5, 2018 after being elected to Terrace City Council. McCallum-Miller resigned on Feb. 22, 2021, saying she felt unsupported and unheard by council. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Terrace’s 1st Indigenous councillor resigns citing ‘systemic and internalized racism,’ sexism

McCallum-Miller said in a Facebook post she felt unheard and unsupported by council

Temporary changes to allow for wholesale pricing for the hospitality industry were implemented June 2020 and set to expire March 31.	(Pixabay photo)
Pubs, restaurants to pay wholesale prices on liquor permanently in COVID-recovery

Pre-pandemic, restaurateurs and tourism operators paid full retail price on most liquor purchases

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Teachers and support staff at Surrey’s Ecole Woodward Hill hold flags and wear red during a “walk-in” outside the school on Tuesday. (Submitted photo: Matt Westphal)
Teachers, staff host ‘solidarity march’ at Surrey school hit by COVID-19 variants

‘We need better safety standards in Surrey schools with the variants’: teachers association president

Wade Dyck with Luna, a dog who went missing near the Chasm for 17 days following a rollover on Feb. 5. (Photo submitted).
Dog missing for 17 days through cold snap reunited with owner in northern B.C.

Family ecstatic to have the Pyrenees-Shepherd cross back home.

Quesnel RCMP confirmed they are investigating a residential break-in at a home on the Barkerville Highway. (File image)
Thieves make off with $300K in Cariboo miner’s retirement gold

Tim Klemen is offering a reward for the return of his gold

Most Read