First popularised by an American woman and then spread by a French woman, the red poppy as a symbol of the Great War took roots, especially in the Commonwealth countries, where it is still used today.
And this humble flower really is tightly bonded to the experience of WWI in so many ways.
In Flanders Fields
In late spring 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres took place and was deadly.
It started on April 22nd, with a surprise attack by the Germans, who used gas as a weapon for the first time during the war. It created havoc among the Allied troops, who never expected that kind of attack and lost an estimated 5000 soldiers in just ten minutes. It was such an overwhelming result that even the Germans were surprised to the point they could not take best advantage of it.
The Allied force retreated while the German took possession of Hill 60, southeast of the city of Ypres.
The British decided to retake the hill using the mines running under it. On April 17th, five mines detonated and practically blew up the crown of the hill. Realising they didn’t have enough resources to keep the city, the Germans opted to raze it to the ground with artillery fire and bombardment. They finally retreated on May 25th.
The battle had been one of the most bloody up to that point. The British lost 59.275 lives, the French about 10.000, the Germans 34.933.
This was the battle that first engaged the Canadian forces. Among them were Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae and his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer.
McCrae served as a surgeon for the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery and saw the horror of the carnage himself, the terrible wounds the soldiers suffered from both the artillery fire and the new gas attacks. On the day of the first gas attack, about 6000 Canadian soldiers died in 48 hours. Among them, Lieutenant Helmer, who fell to artillery fire. Like many others, he was buried in a make-do grave in the surrounding fields.
McCrae later noticed that blooming red poppies slowly engulfed those graves. The sight of the newly bloomed flowers on the broken ground moved him so much that on May 3rd, he wrote a poem dedicated to his friend, but also to all the fallen of that war.
In Flanders’ Field was published in the British Punch magazine on December 8th 1915.
Propaganda was swift to appropriate it and used it to push recruitments, but the poem’s message of hope and resilience soon made it the herald of the voices of so many lost lives, and today is one of the most famous pieces of writing from the First World War.
But McCrae didn’t see the legacy created by his poem. He died of pneumonia and meningitis on January 28th 1918, aged 45.
Why the poppies?
We now link the red poppies to the Great War in special, but the phenomenon of the proliferation of poppies after a battle was first noted in many anonymous documents from the Napoleonic Wars. They reported that the battlefields became covered with blood-red poppies after the battle, and the metaphor soon touched the survivors’ souls.
There is an actual botanical reason why poppies proliferate on battlefields, especially those turned by bombardment.
The Papaver Rhoeas, or corn poppies as it is more commonly known, is classified as a weed. It grows throughout the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe, being native to the Mediterranean area.
Its seeds need light to grow. When they are buried in the soil, they may lay dormant for up to 80 years (some evidence even suggest more than that). Only when exposed to light again, usually by a calamity that disrupts the ground, do the seeds bloom. It may be layers and layers of poppies that have sometimes piled up for decades that finally bloom all at once.
In Flanders, miles and miles of trenches were dug. That part of Belgium was among the battlefields where heavier bombardment and artillery fire occurred. Impromptu cemeteries were created everywhere behind the frontlines.
The soil of Flanders suffered a massive disruption, such as rarely happened, before or after.
But it was the perfect condition for poppies to grow. And they grew, by the millions, covering the battlefields and surrounding the makeshift graves. Their vibrant red colour certainly recalled the soldier the blood of their fallen comrades. But they were also flowers, blooming apparently from nowhere. A symbol of hope.
Moina Michael was a professor at the University of Georgia. At the war breakout, Michael took a leave of absence to volunteer at the New York headquarters of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YMCA), which sponsored the training of workers overseas.
A dedicated worker herself, she happened to read McCrae’s poem in the Ladies’ Home Journal in November 1918, just two days before the Armistice. She was so touched that she wrote a poem in response, We Shall Keep Faith, and vowed to always wear a red poppy in honour and reverence of the fallen.
Using her own money, she purchased twenty-five silk poppies and distributed them to her colleagues at the Overseas War Secretary Office.
When she returned to her university town of Athens, she started selling silk poppies to raise money and support the returning veterans. She determined to make the poppy a symbol of the Great War and everything it meant, but her effort only took momentum a couple of years later, when the National American Legion, a veterans group, voted to use the poppies as a national emblem of remembrance at their convention in Cleveland in September 1920.
Meanwhile, Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin, had championed the red poppy as a symbol of the Great War in France. She had organised women, children, and veterans to make and sell artificial poppies to help restore war-torn France and especially help the children orphaned by the war. She was invited to speak at the National American Legion conference, and while she probably was instrumental in the American Legion choosing the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, she was inspired by Michael’s determination to make the poppy a strong symbol of remembrance of the war and a way to raise money for the help of all the people the war had damaged.
When she went back to France, she organised a team of French widows who began making paper poppies. The enterprise was so successful that by 1921 they had already sold an estimated one million paper poppies.
Seeing how successful this had been in France, Guérin sent a delegation of poppy sellers to London to try and establish a similar enterprise there, with the double goal of raising money for the people damaged by the war and making the poppy a symbol of remembrance.
She soon caught the attention of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who was a founder of the Royal British Legion and a veteran commander of the British Forces during the Battle of the Somme and the Hundred Days Offensive. He took up Guérin’s idea immediately and adopted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. Paper poppies were sold as a symbol of remembrance on the very first poppy day, which occurred on November 11th 1921, marking the third anniversary of Armistice Day.
In 1922, a factory was opened in Bermondsey, which employed disabled ex-military personnel to produce paper poppies all year round.
But Guérin didn’t stop here. While the British nation was the one that more strongly responded to her initiative, she also spread the poppy as a symbol of the Great War in all of the Commonwealth countries, a tradition that still resists today.
The Unknown Soldier
Next week will mark the first centenary of this day of remembrance.
Today, the red poppy is recognised as a symbol of WWI across the globe, though it is in the Commonwealth and especially in the United Kingdom that the tradition is stronger.
In other countries, this tradition never reached.
For example, in my country (Italy), many people wouldn’t think of the red poppies as a symbol of WWI. I myself learned about this only in recent years when I first started delving into the history of WWI.
It’s fascinating how this experience is celebrated in similar ways worldwide, and still, every nation has its own way to remember.
Here in Italy, for example, we don’t celebrate Armistice Day on November 11th. We celebrate the Day of the Fallen today, on November 4th. That is the day we celebrate the end of the war, linking it to a powerful national experience. On November 4th 1918, the Armistizio di Villa Giusti was sighed, which allowed Italy to regain the cities of Trento and Trieste, and so completing the unification process that had started during the Risorgimento of the 19th century.
On this same day in 1921, the Unknown Soldier was buried in the Sacello dell’Altare della Patria in Rome. Another centenary to celebrate this year.
After the war, all the Nations who had taken part wanted to honour their fallen by symbolically burying an unknown soldier fallen in action. In Italy, a commission chose the bodies of soldiers who were impossible to identify, retrieved from the battlefields across the Italian war fronts.
Eleven bodies were carried to the Basilica of Aquileia. Only one of them would be chosen.
This decision was given to Maria Bergamas, a woman from Trieste whose son Antonio – a deserter of the Austrian army and volunteer in the Italian army – had fallen during the war and whose body was never found.
A woman of the people, a mother who lost her son, chose an unidentifiable body as the symbol of reverence for that mechanic, industrial, inhuman war that they still thought would end all wars.
St Tammany Parish Library – 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day -November 11th, 1918
History – The WWI Origins of the Poppy as a Remembrance Symbol
Legion – History of the Poppy
Smithsonian Magazine – How the Poppy Came to Symbolize World War I
FamilySearch Blog – The Meaning of the Poppy Flower: A Symbol of Remembrance in WW1
The History Press – The poppy as a symbol of remembrance
Ministero della Difesa – 4 Novembre, Giorno dell’Unità Nazionale e Giornata delle Forze Armate