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Why do we wear poppies?

Discover the history of the British Legion poppy, worn each year around Armistice Day. Plus discussion points and ideas for further reading.

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As October moves into November, more and more of us start wearing a red poppy, or sometimes a white one. Pinned to our clothes, these poppies are worn as a symbol of remembrance and hope.

But how did the poppy become an international symbol of remembrance?

In the spring of 1915, red poppies started to grow in soil scarred by the first battles of the First World War. Some soldiers pressed poppies between the pages of books and sent them home, folded into their letters. Canadian doctor, Major John McCrae, described red poppies growing on the temporary graves of the dead in his famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’. He wrote the poem in 1915, after the funeral of a close friend. Here is the first verse:

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.

Fast-forward three years to November 1918. Now comes the part played by the poppy women: Moina Michael of the USA and Anna Guérin of France. Two days before the Armistice, Moina Michael was attending a YMCA conference in New York. She’d just read John McCrae’s poem in a magazine and was inspired to wear a silk poppy to remember American soldiers killed in the war, and to give some to other people at the conference. She went on to successfully campaign for the poppy to become a national memorial symbol in the USA.

The French ‘poppy woman’, Anna Guérin, came up with the idea that French widows, orphans and disabled ex-servicemen of the war could make cloth poppies to raise money to support them. Millions of these French poppies were sold in the USA between 1920 and 1924. But Anna didn’t leave it there. She travelled across the world to persuade other nations to adopt the memorial poppy, visiting Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In 1921, she persuaded Field Marshal Haig to adopt the poppy as the symbol of the British Legion.

So who would have thought that the idea for the British Legion poppy came not from a Brit, but from a Frenchwoman inspired by an American woman, inspired by a Canadian man? Anna Guérin’s suggestion to sell French-made poppies in return for a donation in the days leading up to Armistice Day, 1921, raised over £100,000 for the British Legion, money they desperately needed to fulfil their aim of helping ex-servicemen and their families.

The British Legion decided to set up its own poppy factory, employing disabled ex-servicemen to make paper poppies for the next Armistice Day in 1922, rather than buying poppies from France. The factory continues today, as does the Lady Haig Poppy Factory in Scotland, established in 1926, which originally employed two disabled ex-servicemen but now employs 40. These two factories make millions of poppies and wreaths each year for the Poppy Appeal.

Written by Sarah Ridley

Further reading

Sarah’s interest in the First World War and in acts of remembrance has led to her writing four books for children and young adults published by Franklin Watts:

A First World War Family History: Brothers at War

Dear Jelly: Family letters from the First World War (shortlisted for the ALCS Educational Writers’ Award in 2015),

Remembering the Fallen of the First World War

The Somme.

 

Possible questions and points to discuss

  • How does remembering the dead and wounded of wars and conflicts help people to think about the importance of maintaining world peace?
  • Most of the dead of the First World War were buried where they died, in France or other countries, so places of remembrance became very important for local communities during and after the First World War. What places of remembrance (war memorials, memorial halls, memorial gardens, books of remembrance, plaques, shrines etc) did your local community create in the years after the First World War?
  • For many who fought in the First World War, the field poppy came to represent loss and hope. Discuss the meaning behind this sentence.
  • The British Legion Poppy Appeal remembers the dead of wars and supports those who have survived conflicts and are in need, all at the same time. Find out about the work of the British Legion in supporting people in your local area.
  • The Cenotaph and war memorials, laying wreaths, the two-minute silence. Investigate the history behind these national acts of remembrance.
  • New Zealand’s Returned Soldiers’ Association planned to hold its first Poppy Day in line with other countries, including the UK, in the run up to Armistice Day 1921. However, the shipment of poppies from France failed to arrive in time! Rather than wait another year, the poppies were worn to commemorate Anzac Day in April 1922, and that tradition stuck. Find out the significance of Anzac Day for the people of New Zealand and Australia.