How the red poppy became a symbol of remembrance for troops around the world

In Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations, former territories of the British Empire, a red poppy worn on its lapel remembers the cost of war and those who died fighting those wars. In general, it is a show of support for the armed forces and the community that supports them.

Its use as a symbol of remembrance dates back to the Western Front of World War I, but the tradition surrounding red poppies and their associations with soldiers goes back even further. The red poppy is a beautiful but resilient little flower, and has dotted the churned and bloody battlefields for centuries.

The roots of poppy symbolism are not just about the British and the Commonwealth; his popularity stems from a Georgia college professor and his support for all veterans.

By 1915, the Western Front of World War I had plunged into the horrors of trench warfare we remember today. The German army chooses Ypres, in the west of Belgium, to test a new weapon intended to break the deadlock of the trenches: gaseous chlorine.

This first green cloud killed about 1,100 to 5,000 French, British, Canadian, Belgian and Imperial troops. The Germans gained little ground, pushing the Triple Entente allies only three miles from the town of Ypres. The town itself was destroyed by artillery fire, and the Second Battle of Ypres lasted a full month, claiming almost 100,000 casualties on both sides.

In the wake of Ypres, the Canadian doctor, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, was devastated by the loss of a good friend in the fighting. It wasn’t long before the chewed up earth of the Ypres battlefield began to bloom waves of red poppies, the sight of which inspired McCrae to write the immortal poem, “In the fields of Flanders.”

The red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is an annual flower, meaning the flower only grows for one season, not to return unless replanted. Each flower, however, can spread hundreds of seeds that will sprout almost anywhere, including the disturbed earth of a scarred battlefield. They grow and flower fairly quickly in the spring.

Given that Dr. McCrae was tending to the wounded in the days and weeks after the end of the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915, the old battlefield was probably the ideal site for a poppy field. Yet the kind of flowers the doctor saw that day appeared long before the First World War.

Western Europe has been the scene of countless bloody battles and wars over the centuries. The red poppy that McCrae wrote about in 1915 goes back even further, to the Napoleonic wars, where red poppies seemed to sprout spontaneously, even around bodies of dead soldiers.

When World War I broke out in 1914, American professor Moina Michael was in Germany helping American tourists return home during the war. Michael was a distant relative of patriot fighter Francis Marion, who fought the British in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War. She was also the daughter of a Confederate veteran.

After the United States entered World War I, she volunteered for the YWCA in New York. When the war ended, she returned to Georgia, where she read “In Flanders Fields” in 1918. It inspired her to write her own poem “We Shall Keep the Faith” and wear a red poppy as a symbol. of remembrance.

Moina Michael in her own poppy garden. (First World War Centenary Commission)

At the University of Georgia, she taught classes of disabled veterans. This experience led her to sell silk versions of the red poppy to raise money to support veterans. It became so popular as a symbol that it was adopted by the American Legion Auxiliary and what would become the Royal British Legion.

On Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) 1921, millions of silk poppies were sold across the United States and England to help veterans of the Great War find housing and a use. Before long, flowers were made by disabled veterans themselves. Michael died in 1944, known as the “Poppy Lady” for his role in commemorating service members.

Today, the Royal British Legion still manufactures and stores poppies made by disabled veterans for the same purpose.

— Blake Stilwell can be reached at [email protected] It can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell Where on Facebook.

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James V. Hayes