This past weekend my husband and I stopped in at the grocery store to pick up a few things, and made a donation to a veterans’ group soliciting funds outside the door. We were given a small red paper poppy as a token of thanks, and that got me wondering...and researching...and of course, telling you what I found.
The poppy as a symbol of remembrance of those hurt and fallen in war dates to the First World War, a conflict that claimed the lives of so many promising young men, many still in their teens. Great Britain lost so many men that two million women of marriageable age were considered “redundant” because there simply weren’t enough husbands for them (yes, an appalling way of putting it...but also an appalling statistic.)
Much of the actual fighting took place across a swathe of Europe including what is now Belgium and parts of northeastern France. This was primarily an agricultural area, with fields of grain interspersed by woods and small villages—a green, gentle place. But the trench warfare and heavy artillery of the war scarred the land, destroying the fields and the forests, leaving it a wasteland of dead trees and bare earth and mud...until spring arrived. And suddenly the barren, disturbed earth began to sprout...with poppies. You see, the red field (or corn) poppy is a common wildflower in these parts, happily lending a glow of color to the edges of the wheat and grain fields. It blooms between May and August, and its seeds scatter on the wind and lie dormant until the spring plowing disturbs the soil and gives them a chance to grow. Spring plowing didn’t always happen in 1915 and 1916 and 1917...but fighting left the ground torn and open...and the poppies began to sprout, growing in clusters on battlefields and cemeteries. Many noticed this, and a poem written in May 1915 by a Canadian field surgeon, Lt.-Colonel John McCrae, captured the image:
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.
In 1918, just days before the Armistice was declared that would end the fighting in the fields of Flanders, an indefatigable YMCA volunteer in New York named Moina Michael found a copy of the poem in Ladies’ Home Journal and was deeply moved by it. She made a personal pledge to always wear a poppy in remembrance of the dead of the war, and that pledge quickly became a campaign. It took a great deal of work on her part, but eventually the American Legion adopted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance in 1920, and other organizations world-wide eventually followed suit.