History of the Remembrance Poppy

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Everyone knows that the poppy is the symbol of remembrance but how did this flower become that symbol – read on here to find out how.

Little was recognisable of 22-year-old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer after he took a direct hit from a German shell at Ypres on the Western Front one May morning in 1915. His pals gathered what they could find of his remains into sandbags and then arranged them in the shape of a human inside an army blanket.

At sunset he was buried — just another of the hundreds of thousands of men of the British Empire to die in World War I.

The officer who spoke over his grave as the battle raged around them was his close friend Lt-Col John McCrae, an Army doctor.

The next day, after a night of tending chlorine gas victims, he looked out from his first-aid post onto a sea of wooden crosses — his friend’s the latest, mingling with the wild red corn poppies that grew there.

Then he tore a page from his dispatch book and began to write. In 20 minutes, it was done:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Not just an immortal poem was created that morning. It was also the beginning of the corn poppy as the symbol of remembrance of those who die in battle.

The remembering goes on, drawing millions of people to gaze in silence and respect at the ocean of ceramic poppies installed by artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper in the moat of the Tower of London to mark this 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War.

But this week their homage drew the wrath of a critic from the Left-wing Guardian, who claimed this moving tribute is nationalistic, and glorifies blood-letting. Gore, bones and barbed wire should mark World War I, not pretty flowers, he argued.

But that is to miss the poppy’s point entirely. John McCrae’s words written on the battlefield were a lament for the sorrow and loss of war, not a glorification of it. They honoured not slaughter but sacrifice, our humanity not inhumanity.

For the millions of soldiers on the Western Front, the poppy, a hardy species that thrives best on disturbed ground, was a glad sight, peeping defiantly through the mud and destruction.

Flying over the Somme battlefield, fighter pilot Cecil Lewis was astonished by the sight of ‘clumps of crimson poppies, thrusting out from the lips of craters, undaunted by the desolation, heedless of human fury and stupidity, Flanders poppies, basking in the sun’.

Men in the trenches felt the same. Private Len Smith remembered peeping cautiously over the top of his trench, just to catch an inspiring glimpse of them waving defiantly in no-man’s-land. Many soldiers came to believe that, ‘nourished by blood, the red petals captured the souls of the fallen’, according to author Nicholas Saunders in his history of the poppy.

When McCrae’s haunting poem was published in Punch magazine in December 1915, it struck an instant chord. Admittedly, it was taken up by the British military machine for propaganda purposes, particularly its exhortation to ‘take up our quarrel with the foe’.

But it was McCrae’s final lines, urging the world not to forget, that had the lasting impact, particularly in the trenches:

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

They captured the front-line solders’ fears that they would be forgotten once dead, and their suffering would be in vain, a mounting concern as the casualty lists grew longer.

For men facing death in atrocious conditions, trodden into the mud as though they had never even existed, McCrae’s emotional verse created an emblem of remembrance they could be confident would establish itself in the minds of those back home.

From that point, says Nicholas Saunders, ‘the image of the corn poppy’s fragile blood-red petals rooted itself in the psyche of the English-speaking allies’.

McCrae did not live to see the Remembrance Poppy his words would inspire. He fell victim to that other deadly scourge of the era, influenza. Lungs weakened by the gas he inhaled at the front, he could not fight off the virus and died near Boulogne in January 1918.

To honour him, comrades searched fields for poppies to lay on his grave but, in the dead of winter, found none. So they ordered artificial poppies to be made in Paris and woven into a wreath. It was the first of its kind, heralding another lasting remembrance tradition.

It would be several years, however, before the lofty thoughts inspired by McCrae’s poem would be translated into something more tangible — thanks to a largely forgotten middle-aged American school teacher. Miss Moina Michael lived and worked in Georgia for most of her life but adored Europe, particularly Flanders, where her ancestors had lived.

In 1918 she was a volunteer for the YMCA in New York and was hoping to be sent back to Europe to do war relief work when she picked up a magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal, displaying McCrae’s poem and a colour picture of ghostly soldiers, crosses and blood-red poppies.

The words struck a deep spiritual chord with her. In a flash, the 49-year-old saw that here was the purpose for which she had been born. The poppy would become, as she put it, her ‘spirit child’.

She pledged herself to ‘that crimson cup flower of Flanders, the red poppy which caught the sacrificial blood of ten million men dying for the peace of the world’.

On the back of an envelope she wrote her own poetic answer to McRae:

We cherish too the poppy red

That grows on fields where valour led.

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies.

Just as she finished writing, other volunteers came over and read her words over her shoulder. Inspired, they collected ten dollars and she went out to buy poppies. But there were no real ones to be found — only silk poppies in a department store.

She bought 25, pinned one to her coat and handed the rest out back in the office. In this small way, a mighty tradition was born.

When the war ended later that year, Miss Michael began a campaign for the poppy to be adopted as the memorial emblem for Americans who had died in France and persuaded the national convention of the American Legion to back her cause.

Among the visitors to that convention was well-connected French widow named Anna Guérin. Impressed by what she heard, she was determined that the poppy would not be confined to America, but reach millions of buttonholes across all the Allied nations.

And the first step in such a major enterprise, she realised, was to find a way of mass-producing simple silk poppies. Her plan was to have them made by war widows living in the devastated battle zones of northern France and sold wholesale to veterans’ associations around the world.

They would then sell them to the public to raise funds to help wounded soldiers and bereaved families. In August 1921, Guérin showed a sample of her poppies to the general secretary of the newly-founded British Legion in London.

When Earl Haig, Britain’s senior commander during the war and one of the Legion’s founders, saw the Guérin poppies he was touched.

The Legion, too, signed up to the poppy. Nine million, each with a metal pin, were ordered for the first Poppy Day to be held in Britain on November 11, 1921. They were not priced, but given in exchange for a voluntary donation.

A leaflet with them reprinted McCrae’s poem along with the pledge that ‘so long as our surviving warriors live, every effort must be made to keep them and their dependants from want’.

It was not entirely free of controversy even then.

One British officer, Lieutenant-General G. M. Macdonogh, complained that the poppy was inappropriate because it was ‘a pagan flower’, linked to Persephone, the queen of the underworld in Greek mythology, who enjoyed the narcotic qualities of the opium derived from poppy seeds.

He was mixing up his poppies —the opium poppy and the corn poppy are very different — but his outburst showed there was genuine confusion among the British public, as there probably still is today.

The British Legion, aware of the poppy’s other status as the flower of oblivion, argued that it was now resurrecting it as the flower of remembrance, ‘watered with the blood of soldiers’, a symbol that ‘neither poppies nor fallen soldiers would ever truly die’.

The idea caught the public’s imagination. That first Earl Haig Poppy Appeal raised £106,000 — the equivalent of about £4.5 million today. Its success delighted the British Legion, and for 1922 an incredible 30 million poppies were ordered — though now to be made by wounded British soldiers of the Disabled Society rather than by French widows.

Poppy posters appeared all over the country, and in London the latest technology was pressed into service as giant electric signs flashed out from Piccadilly Circus, rousing passers-by with ‘Earl Haig’s Special Message — Buy Poppies For Remembrance Sake’.

The second Poppy Day doubled the proceeds of the first.

The Remembrance Poppy had firmly established itself in the landscape of commemoration.

It is still there, through more wars and suffering, as potent an image as ever, not a symbol of nationalist fervour and bloodlust, as the churlish would have us believe, but a red badge of courage, sacrifice and grief.

Taken from an article in the Daily Mail 1st November 2014 by Tony Rennell with extracts from The Poppy: A Cultural History From Ancient Egypt To Flanders Fields To Afghanistan by Nicholas J. Saunders is published by Oneworld