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