Poppies: From Flanders Fields to a symbol of remembrance22 October 2020
From a poem written in the trenches to the pins worn to honour the fallen, the poppy has spread across the world as an indelible symbol of the human cost of war.
On the battlefields of the Western Front, in soil churned up by shelling and trenches, poppies were among the first flowers to bloom. For many, their scarlet petals echoed the bloodshed of the Great War and they became a powerful symbol of the loss of life the conflict represented.
It was a Canadian doctor, Major John McCrae, who penned the poem first associated poppies with remembrance. Devastated by the death of a young soldier, Major McCrae wrote the poem during the second battle of Ypres in 1915, and it was eventually published in Punch.
His words are still read each year on Remembrance Day:
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.
When she came across the poem three years later, American Moina Michael was so moved that she vowed to always wear a poppy in remembrance of those who had lost their lives, and began campaigning for the flower to be adopted as a national symbol of remembrance. She spoke about it at a meeting of YMCA secretaries attended by Anna Guérin, who began making silk poppies in France to raise money for war orphans.
In 1921, the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League – the forerunner to today’s RSL – sold its first poppies for Armistice Day, importing silk flowers from France and selling them for a shilling.