History

How the Poppy Flowered Into a Symbol of Remembrance

The story of Britain’s Remembrance Day poppies begins with a botanical wonder, a grieving poet and two visionary women. Friday, 10 November

By Mark Bailey

In Flanders' fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

On May 3rd 1915, amid the carnage of the Second Battle of Ypres, the Canadian doctor Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae penned the opening lines of his acclaimed First World War poem In Flanders’ Fields. Moved by the sight of scarlet poppies growing on the grave of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, he immortalised the poppy as a symbol of loss and hope. Over a century later, more than 80 million commemorative poppies are distributed around Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand ahead of Remembrance Day events each year in support of the Armed Forces.

There is a botanical explanation for the proliferation of poppies in war zones - a phenomenon first noticed in the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815. Corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) flourish on broken ground, whether tilled farmland, burial sites or bombed fields, which is how war-torn Flanders became carpeted with blood-red poppies.

When McCrae’s poem appeared in London’s Punch magazine on December 8th 1915, it was initially harnessed as a propaganda tool for raising men, money and morale. The poet never saw its ultimate legacy, having died of pneumonia in France on January 28th 1918, aged 45.

The evolution of McCrae’s poppies into physical symbols of remembrance was driven by two pioneering women. In 1918 the American academic Moina Michael, who cherished the poem, began to sell silk poppies in New York to raise money for disabled soldiers. By 1920 the French lecturer Anne Guérin was doing the same to aid war victims in France.

After introducing the concept to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Guérin inspired Field Marshal Douglas Haig - who in 1921 had founded the Royal British Legion to support war veterans - to order 9 million hand-made poppies ahead of Armistice Day 1921. The following year Major General Howson established the Poppy Factory in London, enabling disabled ex-servicemen to make the poppies in Britain, and it remains a wide-ranging military employment charity today.

In the 2014 centenary commemorations of the start of the First World War, the Poppy Appeal – whose origins began with a scribbled poem in a war-torn field in Flanders - raised a record £44m to support the Armed Forces past and present.