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Remembrance Day: Why do we wear red poppies in tribute to fallen soldiers?

Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae's poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ provides inspiration

Joe Sommerlad
Sunday 11 November 2018 08:54 GMT
What was the Armistice?

Every year the Royal British Legion sells red paper poppies to raise money for servicemen and women.

The organisation has done so every year since 1921, importing to Britain an idea first proposed by American academic Moina Michael, who suggested sporting handmade silk poppies to remember those US servicemen killed during the First World War.

Michael took her inspiration from the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor who had lain to rest a friend killed in Ypres that May.

The poet himself saw the bright red wildflower as a symbol of hope amidst the carnage of modern warfare as it continued to grow when the fields all around were torn apart by shellfire and tank tracks.

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...

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Wilfred Owen, perhaps Britain's most admired war poet, also addressed the contrast between the beauty of the countryside and the gore of battle in his 1918 poem “Spring Offensive”.

Common misconceptions about the lapel pin include that it is intended as an endorsement of war or that its colour is intended to represent bloodshed.

White poppies, sold by the Peace Pledge Union since 1933, are also sometimes worn as an expression of pacificism by those concerned about the red's co-option by nationalistic right-wing groups.

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For this year's Armistice Day centenary, multiple poppies have been used to build impressive installations at churches and statues around the country. The sea of red currently filling the moat of the Tower of London is just one example.

The Imperial War Museum’s “Weeping Window” display, the war horse in the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral and the leaf-shaped messages hanging in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, are also particularly resonant.

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