The Poppy, A Symbol of Peace and Remembrance

by M-Gillies

The poppy has been known as a symbol of remembrance since Moina Michael of the US began wearing an artificial one in 1918.

The war was devastating. Sixty-five million soldiers from allied countries (Serbia, the Russian Empire, France, Belgium, Japan, Italy, Romania, United States, Brazil, Greece, Montenegro, Portugal, the British Empire and her Commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa) fought against the Central powers of the German Empire, the Astro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire of Turkey and Bulgaria. Civilian casualties exceeded 37 million, while 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded ranked amongst the deadliest conflicts in human history.

This was World War I, a battle which united the world’s nations. By 1918, the collapse of the Central Powers came swiftly. The military situation facing Germany was hopeless. A mutiny held by the German High Seas Fleet led to a German revolution which saw the monarchy abolished within days. With the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the country proclaimed itself as a republic, and under a new German government accepted the terms of the Entente for a truce.

It was on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when the Armistice was agreed upon and signed, thus ending, at the time, the most atrocious war in history. Nations built monuments and memorials to the dead and the heroic soldiers who fought valiantly in battles. The following year, after the signing of the Armistice, King George V dedicated the day as one of remembrance for the members of the armed forces who were killed during World War I, and since 1920, the Remembrance Poppy has been used to commemorate soldiers who had died in war; inspired by the World War I poem In Flanders Fields.

His name was John McCrae, a Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel of World War I. Born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada he was appointed as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery and in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. With the devastation of war taking its toll on many soldiers, it wasn’t until the death of McCrae’s friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer, that the former teacher of McGill University took pen to paper and wrote the inspiring poem known as In Flanders Fields.

While attending the grave of his friend, McRae noticed blood-red flowers growing among the graves of the soldiers. The sight of these delicate, vibrant red flowers captivated the doctor and within minutes, he began writing what would become some of the most famous lines written in relation to the First World War:

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

On December 8, 1915, British weekly magazine Punch published In Flanders Fields crediting it to an anonymous author − however in the index to that year, McCrae was officially credited. The verses soon became the most popular poem of the war, receiving extensive printing in the United States and further propelling McCrae into fame.

While the poem had been written on May 3, 1915, McCrae had initially discarded the poem. But as fate would have it, a fellow officer had recovered it and sent it to the magazine.

Meanwhile, after his death in 1918, an American YWCA worker by the name of Moina Michael was inspired by McCrae’s poem, prompting her to publish a poem of her own titled We Shall Keep the Faith. To further show her support toward the McCrae poem, she vowed to always wear a red poppy as a Symbol of Remembrance for those who served in the war.

With a silk poppy pinned to her coat, Michael attended a YWCA Overseas war Secretaries’ conference, in which she distributed 25 more silk poppies to attendees and soon after began campaigning to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol of remembrance. Within the years to follow, a French woman named Madame Anna E. Guerin found inspiration in Michael’s idea of the poppy as a memorial flower and soon expanded the scope of the memorial poppy offered by using the sale of artificial poppies to raise money for the benefit of orphaned children, who were suffering as a result of the war.

In 1921, Guerin made her way to Canada, where she met with representatives of the Great War Veterans Association of Canada, which would later be named The Royal Canadian Legion. Within the following months the first poppies soon saw their distribution throughout Canada and have since become the symbol of peace and remembrance.

 

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