Like many people, I have been greatly moved by the wonderful display of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London. By 11 November, 8,000 volunteers will have placed a staggering 888,246 ceramic poppies into the grass – each representing the life of a solider from Britain or the Commonwealth lost in WWI. Inspired by this, I thought I would look into how we came to use this striking flower as a symbol of remembrance…
The remembrance poppy (Papaver rhoeas) has been used since 1921 to commemorate soldiers who have died in war. Inspired by the WW I poem “In Flanders Fields”, they were first used by the American Legion to commemorate American soldiers who died in that war. They were then adopted by military veterans’ groups in parts of the former British Empire – the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The remembrance poppy is especially evident in this country in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday when they are distributed by The Royal British Legion in return for donations to their ‘Poppy Appeal’, which supports all current and former British military personnel.
The opening lines of “In Flanders Fields” refer to the many poppies that were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders. The poem was written by Canadian doctor and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on 3 May 1915 after witnessing the death of his friend, a fellow soldier, the day before.
At a conference in 1920, the National American Legion adopted the poppy as their official symbol of remembrance. At this conference, Frenchwoman Anna Guérin was inspired to introduce the artificial poppies we see today and in 1921 she sent her poppy sellers to London, where they were adopted by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, a founder of the Royal British Legion.
Did you know that not all the poppies are the same? In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the poppies have two red petals, a green paper leaf and are mounted on a green plastic stem. In Scotland, the poppies are curled and have four petals with no leaf. The yearly selling of poppies is a major source of income for the RBL in the UK. A team of about 50 people — most of them disabled former British military personnel — work all year round to make millions of poppies at the Poppy Factory in Richmond.
In recent years, I think most of us will have heard the touching stories of the roles that animals played during the war, from the gallant horses to the indispensible carrier pigeons. So it is wonderful that, to commemorate animal victims of war, Animal Aid in Britain has issued a purple poppy, which can be worn alongside the traditional red one, as a reminder that both humans and animals have been – and continue to be – victims of war.
Have you been to the Tower of London to see the poppies? What did you think?