On May 3rd 1915, after attending the funeral of his friend Alexis Helmer killed during the 2nd Battle of Ypres, soldier and physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae sat down and wrote one of the best-loved poems of the Great War - ‘In Flanders Fields’…
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.
As a result of its immediate popularity parts of the poem were used in appeals to recruit soldiers and sell war bonds. A growing affection for the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers resulted in the ‘remembrance poppy’ becoming one of the world’s most recognised memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict. Some three years later, on 9 November 1918, inspired by ‘In Flanders Fields’ American professor and humanitarian Moina Belle Michael wrote a poem in response called ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’
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.
Moina also pledged to wear a red poppy in remembrance of the American soldiers killed during the Great War and those who served with them. After the war, Moina taught a class of disabled servicemen at the University of Georgia. Realizing the need to provide financial and occupational support for these men, she came up with the idea of selling silk poppies as a means of raising funds to assist disabled veterans. In 1921, her efforts resulted in the poppy being adopted by the American Legion Auxiliary, and later by Earl Haig’s British Legion Appeal Fund. Today, they are worn in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in remembrance of servicemen and women killed in all conflicts and to raise money in support for all those who have served or who are currently serving in the armed forces and their dependents.
In recent years there has been growing controversy over the Poppy Appeal. Some – including British Army veterans – have argued that the Poppy Appeal has become excessive and garish, that it is being used to marshal support behind British military campaigns, and that poppy wearing has become compulsory for public figures. Columnist Dan O’Neill wrote that “presenters and politicians seem to compete in a race to be first - poppies start sprouting in mid-October while the absence of a poppy is interpreted as absence of concern for the war dead, almost as an unpatriotic act of treachery”. Some far-right groups have used the poppy as a symbol of militant British nationalism, while some Muslims have begun to reject it as a symbol of Western imperialism.
Some people choose to wear white poppies as a pacifist alternative. They were first introduced by Britain’s Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1933 in remembrance of all casualties of war including civilian casualties and non-British casualties and to stand for peace. Today’s white poppies are sold by Peace Pledge Union or may be home-made. However, some people are very offended with the use of the white poppy, and while it was never meant to be disrespectful, some people have lost their jobs for wearing them on Remembrance Day.
People wear poppies of both colours for many reasons, some personal, some patriotic or political, some out of remembrance, some out of respect, some because that’s what we do on Armistice Day, some because…
“Remembrance is the only paradise out of which we cannot be driven away.”
– from Martyn Day