A poppy is a glorious thing – a wild flower, whose seeds are distributed on the wind and the wing, planting itself resiliently and defiantly on waste ground where no other vegetation raises its head. It was this ability which saw it adopted as a symbol of lives lost in the First World War – the sole flower which grew on Flanders’ fields, disrupted by war, where too many lost their lives. So many fragile poppies – blood red – growing in the midst of a barren broken landscape, amidst barbaric warfare. It’s strange therefore that I can still admire the wild poppy which appears suddenly in the most unusual of places, its beauty fleeting, without thinking of its affiliation with the lost. Yet what an appropriate adoption – it took a poem, an American lady and a French one to turn this simple flower into a symbol: the significance of the red poppy.
A Canadian Doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, in the spring of 1915, was moved by the sight of thousands of red poppies, having just lost a friend at Ypres. This is a segment of what he wrote, entitled Flanders’ fields:
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
The poem so inspired an American, Miss Moina Belle Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia, that she wrote a poem in response called “We Shall Keep the Faith” and vowed always to wear a red poppy as a symbol of Remembrance for those who served in the war. She worked tirelessly to have the poppy adopted as a national Remembrance symbol and two years later, in 1920, the National American Legion’s conference did just that. Among those present was Madame Anna Guérin, a French citizen, who saw poppy sales as a way of raising money for the French people, especially orphaned children who were suffering in the aftermath of the war. Having sold millions of poppies made by French widows in the United States, in 1921, she sent her poppy sellers to London. Field Marshall Douglas Haig, a senior commander during WWI and a founder of Earl Haig’s British Legion Appeal Fund (later The Royal British Legion), was sold on the idea and in that same year, the newly established legion sold its first Remembrance poppies. So a tradition began.
It was George V who established the first Armistice Day remembrance on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month 1919 – echoing the exact moment of the previous year’s cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of WWI – asking the nation to observe a two-minute silence to remember the dead. The following year, the ceremony transferred to the Cenotaph in Whitehall, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and unveiled by the King. Into this Remembrance Service, was a funeral for an unidentified soldier exhumed from a grave in France known as the Unknown Warrior and interred at Westminster Abbey. To this day, Royal brides lay their wedding flowers on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, a tradition started by The Queen Mother to remember her brother Fergus who died in 1915. From the early days of the war, the repatriation of the dead had been forbidden so the Cenotaph, original planned as a temporary structure, had swiftly became the centre of public mourning – a substitute tomb representing the absent dead. By the following year, the temporary structure was replaced by the permanent version we see today.
Today the poppy represents all those who have lost their lives on active service in all conflicts, from the beginning of WWI to the present day. It also acknowledges the contribution of civilian services and those innocent civilians who lost their lives in conflict and acts of terrorism. Nine million poppies were sold in 1921 and the first ever Poppy Appeal raised over £106,000. By 1922, the British Legion founded a factory (now known as The Poppy Factory) staffed by disabled ex-servicemen to produce their own. Last year, over 40 million poppies were distributed by 40,000 volunteers raising over £50 million to help support serving and ex-serving members of the Armed Forces community and their families.
- Today, over 45 million poppies are crafted in an operation involving just 40 full time employees.
- The original poppy was just that – a poppy. The leaf was first introduced in the 1960s but it took until 1995 for poppies with integrated leaves to be made available for the first time.
- Scotland has its own particular poppy – four petals and no leaf – still made by hand by disabled ex-Servicemen at Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory each year and distributed by PoppyScotland.
- All parts of the poppy can be recycled and you can take your poppy to any Sainsbury’s for collection.
- Other charities sell poppies in different colours – each with their own meaning. White poppies for example, symbolise peace without violence, black, the African, Black and Caribbean communities’ contribution and purple to honour animals killed in conflict.
- In 2014, the Tower of London marked the centenary of the outbreak of WWI with the commemorative art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which saw the moat filled with thousands of ceramic poppies. In 2018, the Tower once again became a site of commemoration, marking 100 years since the end of WWI with Beyond the Deepening Shadow. Both commemorative events at the Tower were part of the world-wide, WWI centenary commemorations that began on 28th July 2014 and ended on 11th November 2018.
- During the WWI centenary between 2015 and 2018, the “Poppy tour” continued this innovative and heart-rending memorial. 14-18 NOW toured the iconic poppy sculptures Wave and Weeping Window by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper. The sculptures visited 19 locations around the UK and were seen by over 4.6 million people. Weeping Window and Wave have now become part of the Imperial War Museums’ collection.
For more information or to become involved: poppyfactory.org / britishlegion.org.uk / forces.net / thewarhorsememorial.org