Significance of the poppy on Remembrance Day
November 11, 2018 -- A century after the armistice that ended World War I at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the poppy lives on as a potent symbol of remembrance in many parts of the world to honour all servicemen and women killed in conflict since the “Great War”.
The immortality of the Flanders poppy as the flower of remembrance for the dead of two world wars is primarily due to Colonel John McCrae, a distinguished Canadian doctor who served with his country’s armed forces during the First World War, and noticed how bright red poppies were quick to flower over the graves of soldiers killed on the battlefields. He was so moved by what he saw at the Battle of Ypres in 1915 that he expressed his emotion in verse, his lines beginning:
“In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row”
The poem was eventually published anonymously in Punch magazine. Colonel McCrae survived the horrors of Ypres but died from pneumonia in January 1918. He was buried with full military honours in Wimereux Cemetery near Boulogne, not far from the fields of Flanders.
The poem made a deep impression on Moina Michael, an American teacher working as a volunteer for the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries organization in New York, who decided that wearing a red poppy was an appropriate way to honour those who had lost their lives in the war. On November 9, 1918, two days before the Armistice was signed, delegates attending a conference at the YMCA presented Miss Michael with a cheque for $10 in appreciation of her efforts to brighten up the rather gloomy building with flowers at her own expense. That same day she used the money to buy 25 artificial silk poppies, wearing one herself and giving the others to each of the conference delegates.
After the war ended, Moina Michael began a tireless campaign to have the poppy adopted as a symbol not only to honour the dead but to assist returning servicemen in need.
In 1920, Frenchwoman Anna Guerin developed the idea further, proposing that silk poppies should be made and sold to help ex-servicemen and their dependents, especially children orphaned by the war.
The first Poppy Day in Britain was held in 1921, using poppies bought from Madame Guerin. The following year the newly-formed British Legion opened its own factory in London with a staff of five disabled ex-servicemen. This was greatly encouraged by Field Marshall Earl Haig, Commander of the British forces in World War I who believed that providing work for disabled ex-servicemen was just as important as raising money. The workforce quickly grew to over 40 men who made over a million poppies in two months.
By 1925, the Poppy Factory needed bigger premises in Bermondsey as the demand for poppies increased, and it moved to its present site in Richmond. A second factory opened in Scotland in 1926 at the suggestion of Haig’s wife, Dorothy. Five million Scottish poppies -- with four petals instead of two and minus the leaf -- are produced for the Scottish appeal each year.
The Poppy Factory’s team of disabled veterans, their dependants and home-workers (and even teams of volunteers) now produce around 7.6 million hand-made poppies, 135,000 wreaths and one million Remembrance symbols each year. The Remembrance symbols were originally crosses but are now produced in a variety of shapes encompassing different religions, including “no faith”. The public buys nearly 45 million poppies each year, so all the extra poppies are produced on machines at the Poppy Appeal’s HQ in Kent.
In 1921, Britain’s first Poppy Appeal raised £106,000. By 2017, that figure had grown to more than £47 million.
Today, Remembrance poppies are used mostly in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to commemorate their servicemen and women killed in all conflicts. They are usually worn on clothing leading up to Remembrance Day/Armistice Day, while poppy wreaths are laid at war memorials. In Australia and New Zealand, poppies are also worn on Anzac Day.