Every year in late October, the charity poppy sellers set up shop in supermarkets and in schools all across the country, handing out the traditional paper and plastic poppy, now a symbol of remembrance of those fallen in war. Poppies have also expanded out, now with the classic design being sold on dresses, umbrellas, and even jewelled versions to be found in traditional retail stores. But where did it come from, and how did we get here?
The story goes that in 1915, a young Canadian doctor named John McCrae was serving in Ypres and was inspired by the poppies that still grew amongst the absolute devastation of the battlefield. After losing a friend in battle, he then wrote the poem, 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.
When the war ended, an American academic named Monia Michael campaigned for the poppy to be adopted as the symbol of official remembrance in the United States, and this coincided with others trying to do the same across the war-affected Western world.
One of them, a French woman by the name of Anna Guerin, met with Earl Haig in 1921, and persuaded him to adopt the poppy as the symbol of the newly-formed Royal British Legion. The first commercial poppies to wear were sold that same year.
This first ‘Poppy Appeal’ raised over £106,000 (£48,837,686 in today’s money) and went towards supporting veterans with housing and seeking jobs after the war.
After the success of the first year, Major George Howson set up a Poppy factory, employing primarily disabled veterans of the war; this factory is still operational today. In 1926, Lady Haig set up another factory, this time exclusively for the demand for Scottish poppies.
In contrast to English poppies, Scottish poppies have four petals as opposed to two, and no leaves, and are still made by hand by disabled- ex-servicemen at the Lady Haig Poppy Factory.
The poppy is also the national flower of Poland, one of the key battlegrounds of the Second World War.
The emergence of the white poppy as a cultural symbol began in the 1930’s, as a symbol of the hope of an end to all war, rather than a commemoration of the dead of previous wars. The first white poppies were sold by the Co-operative Women’s Guild and were later taken over by the Peace Pledge Union.
White poppies have been slowly rising in popularity in the 21st century in the British Isles, especially in Ireland, where the red poppy, seen as a symbol of British military dead, is boycotted by Irish republicans.
In addition to these, there is also the purple poppy, in remembrance of animals who served during wartime.
The poppy is an enduring cultural symbol with a sad and solemn history, but is always worn with the best of intentions, in remembrance of those who fought and died in war.