The poppy is a familiar symbol of remembrance and has its origin in the First World War. It forms the core of fund-raising activity by the Royal British Legion.
John Mcrae and his poem “In Flanders Fields”
It is often said that the origin of today’s use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance was the poem “In Flanders Fields”. Mcrae was a medical officer with the Canadian Expeditionary Force near Ypres when he penned the poem on 3 May 1915, after the previous day’s death and burial of a friend.
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 was eventually published in “Punch” magazine on 8 December 1915. It proved to be very popular and was widely used for propaganda and recruiting purposes.
The poppy as a symbol or motif
The first British mention of the poppy being used that I could find was in the summer of 1916. Two newspaper clippings show that it was used for fund-raising “Poppy Days”. Whether these were inspired in any way by Mcrae’s poem is hard to tell and while they are obviously similar to later efforts by the British Legion they do not appear to have directly led to its use by the Legion.
It is of interest to note that the use of the poppy was not about remembering the dead, although no doubt many found solace in it, but about supporting the living. 89% of British and Commonwealth soldiers survived the war, with vast numbers being disabled by it,
Moina Belle Michael establishes poppy as symbol of remembrance in the United States
Moina Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia, wrote her poem “We shall keep the faith” on 9 November 1918. It was clearly inspired by Mcrae:
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.
Michael was at this time and after the war teaching disabled ex-servicemen and began selling silk poppies as a means of fund raising. It appears that they were manufacturing in France, by women for the benefit of their children, and shipped to the USA.
French woman Anna Guérin brings the poppy to Britain
According to the Royal British Legion, “A member of the French YWCA, Anna Guérin was at the American Legion convention in 1920 and saw that the sale of large numbers of artificial poppies in her home country could fund support for those still suffering the after effects of war, particularly orphaned children.
Anna Guérin began production of fabric poppies and travelled the world encouraging countries to adopt the symbol. She made arrangements for the first nationwide distribution of poppies in America (working with Moina Michael), saw the promotion of the poppy in Canada and the adoption of it by the Canadian League and also in New Zealand and Australia.
In 1921 she met with Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, founder and president of the British Legion, and persuaded him to adopt the poppy as an emblem for the Legion. The first British Legion Poppy Day appeal began in the autumn of 1921, with hundreds of thousands of French-made poppies selling across the country”.
The official history of the British Legion makes no mention of Haig in this matter, but explains that Guérin came to England in August 1921 and was introduced to the Legion’s General Secretary. She was unknown to the Legion, which was not convinced until a fact-finding visit was made to France by Sir Herbert Brown. An order was swiftly given – it is not recorded how many but the history says that the Legion’s Finance Committee authorised 1.5 million.
The first Legion-organised “Poppy Day” was run on 11 November 1921 and raised the sum of £106,000, selling French-made poppies.
The poppy design was then registered by the British Legion and eventually steps were taken to set up a poppy factory, initially on London’s Old Kent Road.