Poppies have been synonymous with remembrance for more than a century.
Papaver rhoeas (also known as the corn poppy, corn rose and field poppy) grows in the most inhospitable terrain.
During the First World War, when the Flanders Fields were blasted beyond recognition, poppies emerged in the barren landscape, their colour evoking the blood of the fallen and the triumph of nature.
Their association with remembrance dates back to 1915 when a Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote his now famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, and it grew into a worldwide movement.
During the Second Battle of Ypres, the field surgeon was burying a close friend and fellow soldier, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who had been killed by a German shell.
McCrae noted how poppies grew quickly around war graves and, the next day, while sitting in the back of an ambulance, he put pen to paper.
Despite initial misgivings, his poem was published in the British Punch magazine in December 1915.
He was subsequently promoted to consulting physician to the British Army in France but, in 1918, after years of demanding service, McCrae contracted pneumonia and died from cerebral meningitis.
His poem survived as an enduring symbol of sacrifice in the First World War, especially on the Western Front.
According to historian Paul Fussell, ‘In Flanders Field’ became the most popular poem of its era; soldiers took heart from it, while people on the home front found it defined their national cause.
‘In Flanders Fields’ became the most popular poem of its era; soldiers took heart from it, while people on the home front found it defined their national cause.
McCrae’s poem helped popularise the symbol.
Paper poppies had been distributed in England in 1916 to raise funds for Allied prisoners of war and, in America, women were giving them out in 1918 as a token of thanks for war effort donations.
A French language teacher, Anna Guerin, began holding Poppy Days in 1919 (in the USA) for the benefit of French widows and children in the devastated areas of France. The American Legion and its women’s auxiliary members supported her.
The following year, she formulated her ‘Inter-Allied Poppy Day’ idea, which involved French women and children making the poppies (thus accessing work and wages) and the veterans of each Allied country benefiting from profits made.
The American Legion invited Madame Guérin to address its convention about her idea, which it subsequently endorsed, adopting the poppy as its memorial emblem and committing to help Madame Guérin in her US nation-wide 1921 Memorial Day Poppy Drives.
After Canadian veterans, Australia became the second country of the Empire to adopt the poppy as its memorial emblem, ahead of Britain. In fact, Australia used French-made poppies until 1927.
After the war, national Poppy Day was held in most Imperial countries in 1921 and, a year later, England’s Poppy Factory opened in London to employ disabled ex-servicemen.
A similar enterprise was established in Scotland when Countess Haig, wife of the British commander Field Marshal Douglas Haig, suggested another factory was needed to employ men injured during the war.
Beginning with ‘two workers, a pair of scissors and a piece of paper’, the Lady Haig Poppy Factory in Edinburgh now handmakes five-million poppies and 10,000 wreaths each year.
Poppies still grow in the Flanders fields and they remain a worldwide symbol of sacrifice, remembrance and hope.
In 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
In Flanders fields
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
– John McCrae, 1915