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The Remembrance Poppy and its Origins

The poppy has become the symbol of remembrance for the millions of soldiers who lost their lives in conflict. The ‘poppy appeal’, organised by The Royal British Legion, takes place in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, which occurs on the Sunday nearest to Armistice Day. The poppy appeal raises money for those who have served or are currently serving in the armed forces and have subsequently been affected physically, mentally or economically by war.

The history of the poppy as a symbol of respect for the war dead is now almost one hundred years old. Since the appeal’s inception in 1921, the poppy has become the world wide symbol of remembrance for those who have given their lives defending their respective countries.

To trace the history of the Remembrance Poppy, we have to journey back to Flanders the northernmost point of the Western Front during the First World War. Between 1914 and 1918, Flanders became one of the most devastated regions of the entire battlefield. But many soldiers noticed that nature had still not given up on the land. The red poppy also known as the corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy continued to grow in the most ravaged and inhospitable of land and added colour to the shell-thrashed landscape of Flanders.

John McCrae Circa 1914
One man who was captured by the vision was the Canadian soldier Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist and soldier during World War I.  As a surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium. He is best known for writing the famous war memorial poem "In Flanders Fields".  It is thought that doctor John McCrae began the draft for his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” on the evening of the 2 May, 1915 in the second week of fighting during the Second Battle of Ypres. It is believed that the death of his friend, Alexis Helmer, was the inspiration for McCrae's poem “In Flanders Fields”. The exact details of when the first draft was written may never be known because there are various accounts by those who were with McCrae at that time.
One account says that he was seen writing the poem the next day, sitting on the rear step of an ambulance while looking at Helmer’s grave and the vivid red poppies that were springing up amongst the graves in the burial ground.
Another account says that McCrae was so upset after Helmer's burial that he wrote the poem in twenty minutes in an attempt to compose himself.
A third account by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Morrison, states that John told him he drafted the poem partly to pass the time between the arrival of two groups of wounded at the first aid post and partly to experiment with different variations of the poem's metre.

In Flanders Fields
By John McCrae, May 1915

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.

While poppies remain more popular in the United Kingdom and other commonwealth countries, it was an American, Moina Michael, who can be credited with the first charitable poppy sale. She had been working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries Office in New York and was inspired by McRae’s poem that vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war. After the war was over, Moina Michael returned to the University of Georgia and taught a class of disabled servicemen. Realizing the need to provide financial and occupational support for these servicemen, she pursued 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 as a symbol of remembrance for war veterans by the American Legion Auxiliary, and by Earl Haig's British Legion Appeal Fund (later The Royal British Legion) later that year.

Poppy Memorial 1948 By U.S. Post Office

The very first official poppy appeal of 1921 raised £106,000, today the Royal British Legion aims to make £25 million annually from the sale of poppies.  Poppy Factories in Richmond and Edinburgh remain the centres of production. The Richmond factory alone produces 34–45 million poppies each year, the operation run primarily by a dedicated team of veterans. Sold by thousands of volunteers across the country every year, the poppies raise millions of pounds for the causes of veterans and their families.

A member of the cast from from the National Theatre’s production of War Horse prepares to lay a poppy wreath
at the Cenotaph in Liverpool on Remembrance Sunday 2017

The Royal British Legion provides lifelong support for the Armed Forces community - serving men and women, veterans, and their families.



Liverpool Central Library
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