As a watcher of the BBC news channel, one thing that I have been noticing since this month began was that all the newscasters and other people who appeared on the channel have been wearing a lapel pin in the form of a poppy. This week there was also a picture of Britain’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also wearing the same while flagging off the Poppy Appeal.
Why are poppies so much in the news? The crimson poppy flower has become a symbol to honour those who have fallen in battle over the years, and also symbolizes hope and gratitude. The history of this century-old tradition goes all the way back all to World War I.
As the story goes, during World War I, after a particularly bloody battle in the fields of Flanders in Belgium, thousands of bright red flowers mysteriously appeared. These were common poppies. Interestingly, the common poppy (Papaver rheos) is technically classified a weed which can grow even in the most inhospitable of landscapes. Basically it sprouts naturally in areas where there is massive disruption of the soil and the natural environment, such as bare lands which had been disturbed by the movement of troops and battle equipment. It is believed that during the Napoleanic wars of the early nineteenth century poppies bloomed profusely around the bodies of fallen soldiers, painting the battleground blood red. The same thing must have happened at Flanders.
John McCrae, a lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces fighting in Flanders, who had just lost a close friend in the battle, was so moved by this spontaneous bloom that he wrote a poem about the flowers’ resilience and ability to grow in such inhospitable conditions. Titled In Flander’s Field, it was told from the perspective of the fallen soldiers buried beneath the poppies, and honoured the troops who lost their lives in that conflict. The opening lines of the poem:
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.
McCrae’s poem was published in London’s Punch magazine in December 1915. It touched a chord in all those who were suffering the losses of loved ones in the war. The poem was read at memorial services, and reprinted it in many publications. Moina Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia in the United States, first came across In Flanders Field in the Ladies Home Journal and was so moved by it that she vowed always to wear a red poppy in remembrance of the lives lost in war. She found some poppies made of fabric in a store; and bought 25 silk poppies for herself and her friends. Once the war ended she herself began to make poppies out of red silk, and sell these to raise money to support the veterans returning from the war. She also lobbied for the poppy to be recognised as a memorial symbol. In 1920 the little red flower was recognized by the National American Legion as the official national emblem of remembrance.
The United States marks this memory on two days– Memorial Day is celebrated in May while 11 November marks Veterans Day. Over time, in the United States, the tradition of the poppy as the symbol of the day has been largely replaced by the yellow ribbon and red, blue and white ribbon campaigns.
The poppy tradition however took firm root across the Atlantic, and continues to flourish. It first reached France through a French lady Madame Guerin who had seen the introduction of the poppy in America. She thought that selling poppies was a great way to raise money for children who had been affected by the war in France, and she engaged thousands of war widows in making paper poppies, and selling over a million poppies by 1921. The Royal British Legion adopted the symbol immediately. The idea also spread to the other Commonwealth countries. The first poppy event was held on 11 November 1921.
Thus for over a century now, wearing a poppy has become a symbol of remembering the soldiers lost during World War I in many countries. The flower made of paper or fabric, is generally affixed to the left shoulder to symbolize the act of keeping those who have passed away close to one’s heart; the left shoulder is also one where military medals are worn.
In the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand, red poppies are worn in November, especially on 11 November. This date is marked as Remembrance Day as it commemorates the anniversary of the signing of the armistice that formally ended World War I “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918. This day is now an occasion to remember all those who have lost their lives in all conflicts since World War I.
While the original batch of poppies were bought from France, the first factory to produce poppies in England was set up in 1922, employing five disabled ex-military personnel. Today the Royal British Legion has a factory that employs 50 ex-servicemen all the year round to make poppies for fund-raising events. The poppy has transcended its purely commemorative status to become an object that provides financial stability for the war-affected.
The annual Poppy Appeal flagged off by the British Prime Minister last week raises funds for The Royal British Legion to support the armed forces community who have served, or are currently serving in the armed forces, and have subsequently been affected physically, mentally or economically by war.
In an age that is even today more war-torn than ever, where young people are laying down their lives in brutal and meaningless warfare in so many parts of the world, this single flower serves as a powerful symbol not only of remembrance, but also a mark of honour, pride and support for those who still give up everything for the security and peace of nations.