The History and Significance of the Poppy

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At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, Britain falls silent for two minutes to commemorate Armistice Day and to remember those who have served our country and fought for our freedom since the beginning of the First World War. The poppy has become the international, defining symbol of the respect we pay to our fallen soldiers, and in the centenary year of the end of World War One it is ever more important to understand why the poppy has grown to be so significant.

The History of the Poppy

The history of the poppy as a symbol of war and remembrance traces back over 200 years, when the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century left the French land desolate and destroyed. Throughout western Europe, Scarlet Corn Poppies (Popaver Rhoeas) grow naturally in conditions of disturbed earth, and soon enough this bare land transformed into fields of blood-red poppies, growing around the bodies of the fallen soldiers.

In 1914, with the eruption of World War One, the fields of Northern France and Flanders were destroyed once again. At the end of the conflict, one of the only plants to grow back over the barren land was the poppy. It was as a result of this war that the red flower gained its reputation as the international symbol of remembrance and charity.

The poppy as this new and profound symbol was brought to light in the Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, written on 3rd May 1915 following the death and burial of his friend and brother in arms, Alexis Helmer, killed in the Second Battle of Ypres. McCrae noticed the way in which the poppies bloomed around the graves, prompting him to write the touching poem from the viewpoint of the dead soldiers. He passed away in 1918 from Meningitis, but his poetry lives on to this day. The first stanza of In Flanders Fields reads:

‘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.’

Although we associate poppy popularity with British charity, it is in fact an American, Moina Michael, who is credited with the first charitable poppy sale. When Michael, who worked in the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries Office in New York, read McCrae’s poem in 1918 she was touched, and using her hard-earned money, she bought twenty-five silk poppies and distributed them to colleagues. Two years later, her efforts turned the poppy into a national symbol of remembrance recognised by the National American Legion.

Credit: US Post Office Department/Bobdatty/WikiCommons
Credit: US Post Office Department/Bobdatty/WikiCommons

Michael’s tradition soon crossed the Atlantic. When French citizen, Madam E. Guerin, visited America to attend an American Legion Conference, she saw the sale of poppies as a great way to raise money for the children affected by the Great War back home in France. On her return, she gathered together a group of French widows to make and sell paper poppies. Sales took off and soon totalled one million by 1921.

As a result of the poppy’s success in France, in 1921 Guerin sent a delegation of poppy sellers to London, the response was just as she hoped. Field Marshall Douglas Haig, a founder of the Royal British Legion and a veteran commander of the British Forces during the war, was enthused by the idea. Almost immediately, The Royal British Legion adopted the flower as the symbol for their campaign and the Poppy Appeal was born, raising money to aid those who have served and are serving in the British Armed Forces. The first ever annual poppy day occurred in Britain on 11th November 1921, marking the third anniversary of Armistice Day. Nine million poppies sold out, raising £106,000 to help World War One veterans with employment and housing.

In 1921, Canada and Australia adopted the poppy as a national symbol of remembrance, and New Zealand followed in 1922.

At this point, the poppies were still made in France, so in 1922, Major George Howsen opened a poppy factory in Bermondsey, London. He employed five disabled ex-military personnel to produce poppies all year round ready for the distribution in the upcoming weeks to Remembrance Sunday.

Today, the Royal British Legion aims to raise £25 million from the annual poppy sale. The poppies are made by 50 ex-servicemen in a factory in Richmond, Surrey, and a further three million poppies are sent to over 120 different countries across the globe annually.

The poppy is not just a symbol of memory and remembrance, but a physical object providing financial support and stability for those affected by war, in the 100 years from the end of the First World War.

Credit: Pixabay
Credit: Pixabay

Alternatives to the Red Poppy

The White Poppy was introduced by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1933 as a lasting symbol for pacifism and an end to all wars. The Royal British Legion did not associate itself with this campaign, however, seeing it as detrimental to the red poppy appeal, undermining the sacrifice made by military personnel. The White Poppy Appeal is now run by the Peace Pledge Union.

The Purple Poppy was introduced by the charity ‘Animal Aid’ to commemorate animal victims of war across the globe.

If you would like to donate to the Poppy Appeal, you can do so HERE.

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History student and aspiring journalist

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