Trent alumnus and award-winning historian, Dr. Tim Cook ’90 is on a mission to educate Canadians about the history of the Remembrance Day poppy – as we commemorate 100 years of using the poppy to recognize those who have served in the military.
In a recent guest column featured in the Globe and Mail, Dr. Cook - director of Research and senior historian at the Canadian War Museum - shared the uniquely Canadian connection between the poppy and remembrance.
Physician John McCrae penned 'In Flanders Fields' on the battlefield
“The link between the poppy and remembrance began with a martial poem. One of the many Canadian doctors serving in uniform was a gifted physician and poet from Montreal, John McCrae,” explains Dr. Cook. “At the Battle of Second Ypres in April 1915, the trial-by-fire engagement where the Canadians faced the first German unleashing of chlorine gas that burned out lungs, McCrae worked as a battlefield surgeon. In nearly two weeks of non-stop surgery, he wrote last letters to loved ones, fully expecting to be killed… He also penned his famous poem, In Flanders Fields, amid the death and horror of that battle.”
But it was six years later, in 1921, that the Great War Veterans Association (GWVA) adopted the poppy that French activist, Madame Anna Guérin (née Anna Alix Boulle) had been using as a symbol for remembrance.
“Some wore hand-crafted poppies that year on Armistice Day, which had first been established in 1919 to mark the British Empire’s terrible losses.”
The poppy’s strong connection to Canada’s history
As a war historian, Dr. Cook has tracked the changing roles and meanings of the poppy as a symbol, as well as Canadian attitudes towards it: from the Great Wars years of 1921-1946 to the anti-war sentiments of the 1960s to backlash against anti-war protesters who wore poppies during a 1983 protest against American cruise missiles to the present.
“The poppy has always been tethered to those Canadians who served and sacrificed, to acts of violence and heroism, and as a symbol of commemoration and observation,” he writes. “It is a flower infused with tears for loved ones long gone and sadness for humanity’s flaws that lead to war. While the poppy is worn in many parts of the world, its story, spooled out over 100 years, is very much connected to Canada’s history, of generations past and present. We’d do well to remember that.”
Dr. Cook is the author of over 80 referred articles and chapters, and another 150 historical articles, book reviews, and opinion pieces. In 2012, he was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal for his contributions to Canadian history and in 2013 he received the Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media: The Pierre Berton Award. He is a director for Canada’s History Society, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a member of the Order of Canada. His most recent book is The Fight for History: 75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering, and Remaking Canada’s Second World War (Penguin, 2020).
Dr. Cook is a former Historian-in-Residence at Trent University. He has been awarded the Trent University Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award.