The history of the Remembrance Poppy

Still they come, day and night, to see the vast ceramic poppy field at the Tower of London. But how did the flower gain this power? In an extract from his new book, Chris McNab tells the story of the poet, the professor and ‘papaver rhoeas’

To trace the history of the Remembrance Poppy, we have to journey back to a time and place stripped of almost all beauty and compassion. Belgian Flanders represented the northernmost point of the Western Front during the First World War, once the trenchlines had been inscribed in the earth by the end of 1914. Between 1914 and 1918, Flanders became one of the most devastated regions of the entire battlefield.

Yet as many soldiers noticed, in Flanders and in other regions of the blasted frontline, nature had still not given up on the land. Papaver rhoeas is known by many other common names – corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy, red poppy and red weed. The last name is revealing, for although this member of the poppy family produces a beautiful vivid red flower, it is nonetheless classified as a weed. It grows in the most ravaged and inhospitable of land (indeed it thrives best in soil that has been disturbed), hence it managed to add a haunting dash of colour to the shell-thrashed landscape of Flanders. Another of its common names is the Flanders Poppy.

To see such beautiful flowers growing across fields that were already sown with the bodies of thousands of dead men must have left an impression on the minds of all who witnessed it, the flowers delivering a curiously mixed evocation of the red blood of the fallen yet the regeneration of new life. One man who was captured by the vision was the Canadian soldier Lieutenant-Colonel John Alexander McCrae.

McCrae was born on 30 November 1872, and went on to combine strong careers in medicine and soldiering. A man with an adventurous mindset, McCrae became a field surgeon with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and British forces on the Western Front in the First World War. During this service, he managed a field hospital taking in casualties from the Second Battle of Ypres, a job requiring the utmost strength of character to endure mentally. In a letter to his mother, he remembered:

“For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds... And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”

 

 “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds... And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”

McCrae also suffered personal loss – his friend and former student Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was killed in action. McCrae conducted the burial service himself, but during this time he also noticed the red poppies growing obstinately throughout the Flanders landscape. Being a man of literary talents, the poppies and his dead friend began to stir a poetic vision that would move generations to come. The origins of McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” are uncertain, in terms of when and where he first composed it, but he became convinced of its merit and spent months working it into shape. He eventually submitted it to The Spectator magazine, but it was rejected. Yet his next submission, to Punch, was accepted, and it was published on 8 December 1915. Here is the poem in full:

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.

The poem manages to walk that fine line between patriotism and grief, mourning and resilience. The opening image, of the poppies scattered among the graves, seems to hold out promise of some beauty in a dark world, although the statement “We are the Dead” at the beginning of the second stanza has a disturbing, blunt effect. By the end of the poem, the poppy and the dead are inextricably intertwined, as if the flower makes visible the absence of the fallen.

“In Flanders Fields” had an enormous effect on the reading public. It was translated into dozens of languages and achieved global distribution. Such was the power of the poem that it endured the war years to become a staple classic of the particular genre known as “war poetry”.

Not everyone has been impressed with “In Flanders Fields”. The patriotism it contains, especially in the last stanza, often strikes as jingoism to the modern ear, a tool for recruiting more men and sending them to the grinding mill of the Western Front. Yet one effect is key – it began the development of the Remembrance Poppy.

Born in Good Hope, Georgia, United States, on 15 August 1869, Moina Belle Michael may seem an unlikely figure to intersect with the narrative of the Remembrance Poppy. She was a highly educated woman, and by the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 she was a professor at the University of Georgia.

Michael was also a passionate humanitarian, and as the war progressed she devoted more of her time to working for the Young Women’s Christian Association, helping to ready workers for overseas service. In her autobiography, The Miracle Flower: The Story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy (1941), Michael explained how, when in New York City on 9 November 1918, with the Armistice just two days away, she came across McCrae’s poem (then titled “We Shall Not Sleep”) in the Ladies’ Home Journal. As she recounts, the emotional effect of the poem upon her was considerable:

“I read the poem, which I had read many times previously, and studied its graphic picturisation. The last verse transfixed me – ‘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.’

“This was for me a full spiritual experience. It seemed as though the silent voices again were vocal, whispering, in sighs of anxiety unto anguish… Alone, again, in a high moment of white resolve I pledged to KEEP THE FAITH and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of ‘keeping the faith with all who died’. In hectic times as were those times, great emotional impacts may be obliterated by succeeding greater ones. So I felt impelled to make note of my pledge. I reached for a used yellow envelope, turned the blank side up and hastily scribbled my pledge to keep the faith with all who died.”

poppies_pensioner_ap.jpgIn this vivid moment, Michael crystallised the idea for the Remembrance Poppy. (McCrae himself was no longer alive by this time – he had died of pneumonia on 28 January 1918.) She quickly went out and acquired all the artificial red poppies she could find in the Wanamaker’s department store, and began to sell them. It was the beginning of a concerted campaign to make the poppy a national commemorative symbol.

Her vision was for a single national motif, albeit one that could be reproduced in various different forms, to act as a reminder of all those lost in the war. In December 1918 she worked with a designer, Lee Keedick, who helped her produce a final motif. It featured a poppy, coloured with all the hues of the Allied flags, intertwined with a Torch of Liberty.

Michael strode on tirelessly, pushing for national adoption, but two years of effort did not seem to advance her cause significantly. Then came a breakthrough. In August 1920, Michael convinced the Georgia Department of the American Legion (a US veterans’ organisation) to adopt the Memorial Poppy as its symbol, albeit without the Torch of Liberty motif. This in turn, at the National American Legion convention in Cleveland on 29 September 1920, led to the Memorial Poppy being adopted as a country-wide symbol of remembrance, with the idea that American Legion members and supportive members of the public would wear the poppy annually on Armistice Day, 11 November. Michael had achieved her goal, but now the Memorial Poppy was about to spread internationally.

A key person at the National American Legion convention in 1920 was a member of the French YWCA, Madame Anna E. Guérin. Like Michael, she found the vision of the Memorial Poppy one that could not be ignored. In particular, she saw possibilities for the sale of large numbers of artificial poppies in her home country, the proceeds going towards helping those who were suffering from the after-effects of war, particularly orphaned children. Once back in France, she straight away set about producing the fabric poppies for sale. But her ambitions were international, and she began travelling to other countries, or sent representatives, to drive the concept of the Memorial Poppy.

In 1921 alone, Guérin travelled to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain, and the audiences there proved more than open to the idea of the Memorial Poppy. In the same year that millions of poppies were sold across the United States, the Great War Veterans Association of Canada also adopted the poppy as its national emblem of remembrance, on 5 July 1921. The next stop on Guérin’s itinerary was Great Britain, and she sought to meet with none other than Field Marshal Douglas Haig. Haig is now a rather ambiguous figure in relation to the First World War, blamed by many for directly elevating the numbers of British and Empire casualties. Yet his role in the support of post-war veterans was crucial. He was appalled at the financial hardship experienced by many veterans back on the streets of Britain, so Guérin’s approaches found a receptive ear. Haig was also the president of The British Legion, founded in 1921.

The idea of a Remembrance Poppy, sold as a way to generate funds for veterans, was quickly embraced by Haig with the support of The British Legion. The first British Legion Poppy Day appeal began in the autumn of 1921, with hundreds of thousands of poppies selling across the country. But Britain’s imperial connections and the ceaseless energies of Madame Guérin meant that the Remembrance Poppy soon spread farther afield – Australia also launched its first poppy appeal in 1921, with the official recognition that the poppy would be worn every year on 11 November. New Zealand followed suit in 1922. In the space of four years, the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand had adopted what we now call the Remembrance Poppy, establishing traditions that survive to this day.

One of the striking things about the Remembrance Poppy is its durability. Founded in the emotional aftermath of a world war, it could have gradually withered on the vine as time marched on and interest waned. Obviously, the fact that the First World War was followed just over two decades later by an even larger world war kept the idea of remembrance utterly relevant, as did Britain’s numerous post-war conflicts.

The Poppy Factories in Richmond and Edinburgh remain the centres of production. The Richmond factory alone produces 34–45 million poppies each year, the operation run primarily by a dedicated team of veterans. The poppy is manufactured in a wide range of formats, so alongside the traditional paper and plastic version sit silk poppies, metallic pins, complete wreaths, wooden crosses, crescents, stars and Khandas, and shopping bags. Sold by thousands of volunteers across the country every year, the poppies raise millions of pounds for the causes of veterans and their families. The contribution of this simple item to the welfare of thousands of deserving people is therefore inestimable.

But apart from the vital fundraising performed by the Poppy Appeal every year, it has a deeper purpose. Although it was born from the bitter aftermath of a world war, the poppy has largely avoided becoming just a symbol of British, Commonwealth or American commemoration. It is not jingoistic or threatening (a danger of any national symbol), but instead compels entire nations to stop and reflect upon the human cost of war, both to themselves and to their former enemies.

War is a complex and harrowing issue, and one that resists moral, political or philosophical simplicities. Nor must we try to gloss over what it is that soldiers are compelled to do in war. Violence is always a terrible act, whether it is dressed up in uniform or not. Many soldiers are afflicted with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) precisely because the things they were obliged to perform don’t square easily with their fundamental humanity.

The Remembrance Poppy does not attempt to glorify or romanticise conflict, but instead, at least once a year, obliges us to face and think about the consequences of war, past, present and future.

We shall keep the faith  

What Moina Belle Michael wrote in response to John McCRae’s poem, ‘we  shall not sleep’/’in Flanders Fields’

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 diess,

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.

In Flanders Fields we fought.

‘The Book of the Poppy’, by Chris McNab (The History Press, £9.99) is out now in support of The Royal British Legion

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