The Poppy we now see being worn has a small black inner circle on which the words “Poppy Appeal” are stamped. A few years ago the words in the central portion were “Haig’s Fund”. It should really have read “Earl Haig Fund” as that was the charity set up in 1921 to help support ex-servicemen and which sold the Poppies to raise funds in Britain after the War. However, even that was not the real origin of the Poppy Appeal; for that, we have to go back via France and the USA, and then on further via Canada.
A Canadian army doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae had lost a friend on the battlefield of Flanders in 1915 and was inspired to write that most famous of WW1 poems, “In Flanders Fields”.
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.
An American woman, a humanitarian and philanthropist, Moina Michael, had read McCrae’s poem and composed her own reply to it in November 1918:
We Shall Keep the Faith
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
Moira vowed to wear a red poppy from then on to remember those who had died in the Great War. She also started up the production of artificial poppies to sell in order to raise funds for the American Legion. The campaign to wear poppies to mark Armistice Day began formally in the United States in 1920, when the National Veteran’s Association adopted the wearing of a silk poppy.
Related Article: New poppies with what purpose
It was during the sale of Poppies in 1921 at a US Legion effort that a Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin, a member of the YWCA, was inspired to take the idea around the world. Having helped Moina Michael to set up distribution of the Poppy throughout the whole of the States, Anna took them to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It was only after that, in 1921, that she met Earl Haig, the former British commander, and persuaded him to adopt the Poppy as an emblem for the Legion in the UK. IN the autumn of that year millions of Poppies were sold, all of which were made in France. They raised £106,000 for soldiers and also the dependants of men killed in the War.
In 1922 a factory was set up in England by a Major Hewson to make Poppies. However, demand was so high that few ever reached the North and Scotland. So in 1926, another factory was established in Edinburgh by Lady Haig, and the first Sottish Poppies appeared. They differed from the English versions in that they had four petals and no leaves. They are still made today in Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory and distributed by Poppyscotland.
Why the Poppy? Well, no-one will ever really know why McCrae was so inspired, but many believe it was the fact that the flower seemed to symbolise the hope that good things could still emerge from the destruction and carnage of the Western Front battlefields; its fragility contrasted so greatly with the heavy slime and putrid mud that seemed to characterise the awfulness of static trench warfare.
In fact, the Poppy seeds have amazing ability to lie dormant under the earth, flowering when the soil is turned over by a plough – or shells. And it was the latter that brought so many to the surface in the 14 – 18 War. Their vivid red colour seemed to be a symbol of the blood of the soldiers who had died in their thousands, many of whom were buried and are still being found today. Many others will never be discovered, of course, their remains scattered about the countryside during the terrible barrages that accompanied many of the frontal infantry assaults, one of the bloody hallmarks of the War.
In the words of the British Legion:
The poppy is
- A symbol of Remembrance and hope
- Worn by millions of people
- Red because of the natural colour of field poppies
The poppy is NOT
- A symbol of death or a sign of support for war
- A reflection of politics or religion
- Red to reflect the colour of blood
Wearing a poppy is a personal choice and reflects individual and personal memories. It is not compulsory but is greatly appreciated by those it helps – our beneficiaries: those currently serving in our Armed Forces, veterans, and their families and dependants.
In commemoration of the First World War centenary, the Legion and Decca Records have released a very special album of spoken words and music that includes “In Flanders Fields” read by Stephen Fry and another version, read by the descendants of WW1 VC recipients.
In addition, there are readings by Danny Dyer, Sarah Millican, Dan Snow, Sean Bean and Jim Naughtie with music by The Central Band of The Royal British Legion.
With thanks to the British Legion for the use of Legion images and information. Also to the BBC for some images.