How the poppy became a symbol of remembrance

Every 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month, France, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom observe Remembrance Day in honor of members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty. It is also known as “Poppy Day”, with decorations and posters usually covered in beautiful, symbolic blood-red poppy flowers. In 2014, ceramic artist Paul Cummings and set designer Tom Piper, along with 300 others, worked to create 888,246 ceramic red poppies, each depicting a British or colonial soldier killed in war. The public art installation called “Bloodswept red lands and seaswas created in the moat of the Tower of London, England. Have you ever wondered when we first started associating these flowers with Remembrance Day?

View of the Tower of London from The Shard, August 2014, with Bloodswept red lands and seas visible in the moat (© Hilarmont (Kempten), CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia)

flowers of war

Probably one of the most popular flowers, the papaver rhoeas is native to Eurasia and North Africa, although it is commonly found in Central Europe today. Besides red poppy, other common names are common poppy, corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy, and Flanders poppy. It is considered an agricultural weed, an annual herbaceous species of a flowering plant. Before the First World War, these red wildflowers occupied the meadows of Flanders every spring. However, during the war, shelling and the constant trampling of boots back and forth caused the poppies to disappear, with no chance of growing back and blooming. The four years of relentless war and destruction have not only made West Belgium the resting place of those red poppies, but also of the some 10 million soldiers killed in the field, while some 20 million others have been injured. According to American prairiesover 2,500 poppy seeds per square foot were found and were able to bloom again once the war was over.

“In the fields of Flanders, the poppies blow”

It’s one thing to talk about the brutality of war; looking at his face is another. When Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, Canadian Brigade surgeon and poet, was sent to treat the wounded just after the Second Battle of Ypres, he saw for the first time the harrowing and devastating effects on the soldiers of chlorine gas. death of the Germans, where approximately 87,000 Allied soldiers died, were wounded or disappeared. Among the lives lost that day was Lt. Alexis Helmer, McCrae’s friend.

The ground was red that day, both from the blood of the military and from the bright red flowers sprouting from the beaten ground. McCrae, on the spot, wrote a poem called “In Flanders Fields”, and apparently unhappy with the turn of his words, he threw it away. However, one of his fellow officers picked it up and sent it anonymously to Punch magazine which, in late 1915, published the poem. It has become very popular that it is used several times during memorial ceremonies.

Let’s not forget it

Let's not forget it
Let’s not forget (Alex Layzell from Norwich, Norfolk, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0via Wikimedia Commons)

A University of Georgia professor named Moinna Michael read McCrae’s poem in Ladies’ Home Journal. When war broke out, she volunteered at the New York headquarters of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) which trained and sponsored overseas workers. And so when she read the poem, she was inspired that she wrote her own poem in response titled “We Will Keep the Faith”.

Moina Michael, promoter of the observance of Poppy Day, commemorated by a 1948 U.S. postage stamp.
Moina Michael, promoter of the observance of Poppy Day, commemorated in the 1948 U.S. postage stamp. (WE. Post departmentpublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

More than words, she vowed to always wear a red poppy in remembrance of the sacrifices made by the soldiers. When she returned to the university city of Athens, she decided to make and sell red silk poppies to raise money for returning veterans. In the mid-1920s, she managed to convince the Georgian branch of the American Legion veterans group to use the poppy as a symbol. Soon the poppy was elected by the American National Legion as its official symbol of remembrance.

At the same time, a Frenchwoman named Anna Guérin helped convince members of the American Legion to adopt the poppy as their symbol and join her in celebrating National Poppy Day in the United States in May of the next year.

Back in France, she organized herself to sell artificial poppies with the help of French women, children and veterans in an effort to restore war-damaged areas of France. She campaigned in England less than a year after, in November 1921, the Royal British Legion staged its first “Poppy Appeal” which sold millions of silk flowers. The more than £106,000 they raised went towards helping veterans find jobs and housing.

Other nations like the UK, Canada, Belgium, New Zealand, France, and Australia have followed suit and adopted these poppies as a symbol of remembrance. The red flowers were worn on Memorial Day on the last Monday in May in the United States instead of Veterans Day on November 11.

In the fields of Flanders

In the fields of Flanders the poppies are blowing
Between the crosses, row upon row,
Which mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Rare heard among the guns below.

We are the dead. A few days ago
We’ve lived, felt the dawn, seen the sunset shine,
Loved and been loved, and now we lie
In the fields of Flanders.

Take our quarrel with the enemy:
To you failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If you break faith with us dying
We won’t sleep, even if the poppies grow
In the fields of Flanders.

We will keep the faith

Oh! you who sleep in the fields of Flanders,
Sleep well – to get up!
We caught the torch you threw
And standing tall, we keep the Faith
With all who died.

We love poppy red too
Which grows on fields where valor has led;
It seems to signal to the sky
This hero’s blood never dies,
But lends a glow to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In the fields of Flanders.

And now the torch and the red poppy
We wear in honor of our dead.
Do not fear to have died for nothing;
We’ll teach the lesson you’ve learned
In the fields of Flanders.

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James V. Hayes