History

‘A wreath of poppies’

This account of the introduction of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance comes from Alwyn W Turner’s book The Last Post:

One of Douglas Haig’s primary concerns as president of the British Legion was to refocus energy away from political campaigning, and instead to work to improve the provision of charity for ex-servicemen. One initiative in particular, the Legion’s Appeal Fund, commonly known as the Haig Fund, was to become personally associated with him, though in fact it predated the Legion itself.

Launched in 1920 by the Officers’ Association, the Fund had sparked a myriad of local events, including benefit concerts, golf tournaments, fancy dress balls and special cinema screenings (even if the Jockey Club did decide against the suggestion of staging an extra day’s flat racing for the charity). On the formation of the British Legion, the Fund was taken over by the new body, but there was a general feeling that it could go still further if, as Haig and others argued, the project could acquire a focus, a symbol that would make some unified sense of all the activity.

The result was announced in a press release from the Legion in October 1921, which called for ‘the wearing of a Flanders poppy as a sign of remembrance and reverence to the many thousands of our heroes who rest beneath this flower in Flanders fields’. These poppies, made of blood-red silk (or cotton, depending on price) were to be sold on Armistice Day itself by women in the streets, and any profits that accrued would ‘be used to alleviate the distress among ex-servicemen’, though only those who had served during the most recent war.

The announcement went on to note: ‘There is an added value to these poppies in the fact that they are made by the women and children in the devastated areas of France.’ And, it was urged, ‘On every memorial – city, town or village – a wreath of poppies should be placed.’

The red corn poppy had become a familiar sight on the battlefields of northern Europe, growing in great profusion on land that had been churned up and fertilised with the blood and bones of millions of men. Even during the course of the hostilities, combatants had noted something symbolic in the simple, enduring beauty of nature in the midst of the slaughter. ‘Clumps of crimson poppies,’ wrote the British fighter pilot, Cecil Lewis, describing what he saw from his aeroplane, ‘thrusting out from the lips of craters, straggling in drifts between the hummocks, undaunted by the desolation, heedless of human fury and stupidity.’

That symbolism spread from the Western Front back home with the publication in December 1915 of a poem by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. McCrae was a veteran of the Boer War and, despite having long since left the forces, he immediately re-enlisted when war was declared in 1914, serving until his death from pneumonia in January 1918. His poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, prompted the renaming of the flower to become the Flanders poppy, and ended with a challenge to others to continue the fight in which he and his comrades were presently engaged:

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 successful throughout the English-speaking world, including in America, a nation that was then yet to join the war. And it was in America that Moina Belle Michael, a schoolteacher from Georgia, read McCrae’s words and, after hostilities had ceased, responded to his challenge by launching a campaign to have the poppy adopted as the symbol of those who had been killed in the conflict.

The initial design that was used, however, was unsuccessful. A torch of liberty entwined with a poppy and adorned with colours from the flags of the Allies, it was given the name the Flanders Victory Memorial Flag, and it failed to inspire: too confused, too fussy and perhaps too triumphalist in its celebration of victory.

Reverting simply to the poppy itself, Michael persuaded first the Georgia branch of the American Legion to adopt it as their memorial emblem and then, through them, the whole of that organisation; the proposal was ratified in 1920.

Also championing the cause was Anna Guérin, a Frenchwoman who had begun manufacturing silken poppies shortly after the Armistice. She similarly campaigned for the flower to be adopted as a symbol by all the Allied countries, and in 1921 she visited London, where she convinced the British Legion, and Haig in particular, to take up the poppy.

The arrival of the emblem in Britain struck an immediate chord with the public: the initial order was for two million poppies to be made, and when it became clear that that was an underestimate, a further six million were ordered, and still ‘these were not half enough’. In that first year, over a hundred thousand pounds was raised for the Fund, an amount doubled the following year and tripled by 1924.

Even so, it could hardly hope to address the scale of the need. Haig himself explained in 1925 that there were half a million disabled men in the country, with an unemployment rate of ten per cent, three hundred thousand children who had lost a parent, and a hundred and sixty thousand widows, the latter in receipt of ‘often inadequate’ pensions.

Nonetheless, the success of the first year was such that in 1922, production was brought home from the war-widows of France. A factory was set up in the East End of London which employed only disabled veterans and which, within a couple of years, was making nearly thirty million of the emblems annually.

Demand was so high that in 1926 production was moved to newly built premises in Richmond, complete with a block of flats to house the workers; by 1939, some four hundred disabled men were working to produce the poppies sold by three hundred and sixty thousand volunteers.

Various models were by now available, from the simple to the ornate, with minimum prices set between one penny and half-a-crown across the range. It had become by far the best-known charity flag-day in the calendar; Armistice Day itself was increasingly referred to as Poppy Day, and there was an ‘almost universal wearing of the Flanders poppy’.


Extracted from Alwyn W Turner, The Last Post: Music, Remembrance and the Great War (published 2014)

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