The Poppy – A Symbol of Remembrance

By Peter Garland

The scarlet red corn poppy – Latin name Papaver Rhoeas – is a fragile but highly resilient plant, which flourishes in broken cultivated soil. It hates cold, wet conditions and its seeds will lie dormant, sometimes for many years, until conditions are to its liking when a sudden flush of scarlet flowers will appear amongst the cultivated crops or wastelands created by human activity. As a weed of cultivated land, farmers do their best to eradicate them or risk contamination of their harvested crops. But it was as a weed of chance that dominated the ravaged landscapes of “Flanders Fields” during World War 1, and inspired a poet with their fragile blood red beauty, that the corn poppy started its long road to be a symbol of remembrance and commemoration, and acquire a new name: the Flanders Poppy.

Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae arrived in France in February 1915 as a medic in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. By April 2015 he was stationed at a casualty clearing station – known as “Essex Farm” to British forces – dug into the west bank of the Ypres-Yser canal, just North of the Belgian town of Ypres (Ieper in Flemish, Wipers to British “Tommies” ).

This 1918 photograph shows two British soldiers in an overgrown German trench. They are surrounded by wire and rubbish but flowers are blooming all over the sides of the trench. When the soil was disturbed, many flowers, particularly poppies, flourished in the middle of the battlefield.

On 22nd April 1915, the Germans unleashed in a choking fog of chlorine gas – used in direct contravention of the Hague Convention of 1899 – the Battle of 2nd Ypres. One of its victims was Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, a good friend of John McCrae, of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. At 0800 on 2nd May, Alexis Helmer was blasted to pieces by a direct hit from a German shell as he was a making an inspection of his own field guns. His remains were gathered together in sand bags and arranged inside an army blanket for burial at sunset in the cemetery attached to John McCrae’s casualty clearing station at Essex Farm. McCrae personally officiated at the burial of his friend as the chaplain was absent that evening.

The next day, sitting on the tailgate of a field ambulance, tired and saddened by the loss of his friend, McCrae was inspired by the countless red poppies shimmering in the sunlight to write his now famous poem on a page torn from his dispatch book.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
Beneath the crosses, row on row,
That mark our places; 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 falling 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.

McCrae, not satisfied with his effort – originally called, “We shall not sleep” – crumpled it up and threw it away. But he was not alone. Through the ten minutes or so it had taken him to write it, he had been watched by C.S.M. Cyril Allinson who, thankfully, retrieved the crumpled paper, smoothed it out and handed it back to McCrae saying it was an exact description of the scene in front of them.

A month later, McCrae was posted to a hospital just outside of Boulogne where he polished the poem up a bit and sent it to the “London Spectator” whose editor rejected it! However the editor of “Punch” magazine was a better judge of poetry and published it, anonymously, on 8th December 1915, under the title “In Flanders Fields”.

On 9th November 1918, a 49 year old teacher, Moina Belle Michael from Good Hope, Walton County, Georgia, USA, was working as an overseas war secretary for the YMCA in Columbia University in New York City. The O.W.S. were celebrating their 25th anniversary that morning and Moina was waiting at her desk in a room known as the “Gemot” in Hamilton Hall when she idly picked up the November edition of “Ladies Home Journal” left by a passing young soldier. As she turned the pages, she became entranced by a picture of ghostly soldiers rising from a field of crosses and blood red poppies accompanying John McCrae’s poem. She had read it before but on this occasion the combination of poem and graphics touched her very soul and she pledged the moment to “that crimson cup flower of Flanders, the red poppy which caught the sacrificial blood of ten million men dying for the peace of the world”. So strong an effect did the poem have on her that in response to McCrae’s final verse she penned the poem “We shall keep the faith” of which the final lines read:

And now the torch and poppy red,
Wear in honour of our dead,
Fear not that ye have died for nought,
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught,
In Flanders fields.

She announced, “I shall buy red poppies, 25 red poppies. I shall always wear red poppies, poppies of Flanders fields”. And with ten dollars given to her by O.W.S delegates for “housekeeping” work, she set out into the New York streets to buy some. After a long search she finally found red silk poppies for sale in Wanamaker’s department store, where she was served by a young female assistant whose own brother had been killed in the war. She purchased one large and 24 smaller silk poppies for her desk.

On returning to her office, and after showing delegates the poem and telling them about her idea to wear poppies in memory of the fallen, they swarmed her desk demanding poppies for their buttonholes. One could argue, 9th November 1918 was the first Poppy Day.

Moina then spent the next few years campaigning vigorously for the poppy to be adopted as the memorial emblem for those who fell. After several false starts, including the mistake of signing a contract with a publicist Lee Keedick who came up with the idea of producing and selling a fancy brooch of a torch entwined with red poppies – the project failed – Moina eventually persuaded the naval representative to the Georgia department of the American Legion to put her case to the Legion’s Georgia convention on 20th August 1920. The convention passed the motion and it was then put out to the National Convention of the Legion held in Cleveland, Ohio on 29th September 1920. The motion was passed and the American Legion took up the Flanders poppy as a symbol of remembrance.

But where to source the poppies from?

Also present at the national convention was French widow Anna E. Guerin, who like Moina Michael was an overseas war secretariat employee, albeit in France. She had been lecturing widely across the USA raising funds for the Red Cross and the “American and French Civil League (Lique Americaine Francaise Des Enfants). Based in Paris, the league raised funds for the relief of “Fatherless French Children”.

Anna Guerin persuaded the Legion that the poppies should be made by French war widows in the devastated areas of Northern France and distributed in North America by the American and French Civil League, who would sell them wholesale to the American Legion and other veteran associations with Guerin’s share of the profits supporting French children orphaned by the war.

On Armistice Day 1920, in the first act of remembrance of its kind, Guerin’s organisation placed poppies on the graves of every American soldier who fell in France.

How then did the poppy reach the shores of the United Kingdom?

During 1921, Anna Guerin, or one of her representatives, made extensive tours of North America, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom promoting the poppy memorial day, with the poppies to be made in her factories. In August 1921, she called on Colonel E.C Heath, General Secretary of the British Legion which had formed on 19th June that year out of four post-war ex-servicemen groups, with Earl Haig as its founder and head.

The red poppy touched Haig greatly and he ordered nine million for Britain’s first poppy day on 11th November 1921, given to people in exchange for a voluntary donation. Each simple red silk poppy had a tag which read “British Legion Remembrance Day” and on the reverse “made by the women and children in the devastated areas of France”. They were accompanied by a leaflet reprinting both McCrae’s and Moina Michael’s poems. That first poppy appeal raised £106,000; about £3.5 million at today’s values.

In January 1918, John McCrae, while stationed at Wimereux (just North of Boulogne), was struck down by the Spanish flu virus. Aggravated by asthma and the effects of previous exposure to gas, the illness progressed and he died in the early hours of 28th January 1918. His fellow officers decorated his grave with a wreath of silk poppies obtained from a Parisian florist in memory of his time in Flanders. John McCrae, whose poem inspired the poppy movement, thus became the first recipient of a poppy wreath in commemoration of his life and work.

Moina Michael, born 15th August 1869 in Good Hope, Walton County, Georgia, died on 10th May 1944 at her home in Athens, Clarke County, Georgia. She is buried in the historic Monroe cemetery, her headstone engraved with the words: “(The Poppy Lady) Originator of Memorial Poppy”.

In celebration of her life and work Congressman Paul Brown sponsored the introduction of a US postal service commemorative 3 cent stamp in 1948. She also had a Liberty ship named after her and in 1969 the Georgia State Assembly renamed part of US highway 78 “The Moina Michael Highway”.

Her autobiography, “The Miracle Flower, the story of the Flanders Fields memorial poppy” was published in 1941.

Anna Guerin did not fare so well. After her ‘American and French Civil League’ disbanded in May 1922 – rather acrimoniously – and poppy production switched from her Parisian factory to ex-servicemen’s factories in North America, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K., she returned to lecturing, constantly traveling between New York – where she opened a French antiques shop – and Europe. In February 1941 she wrote a synopsis to Moina Michael proving her claim as the originator of Poppy Days. She died, age 83, on 16th April 1961 at Le Square Charles Dickens 5, Paris, Île-de-France (16th Arrondissement) and her remains/ashes are thought to be interned in the Communal Cemetery Vallon (Pont-D’Arc).

She is still hailed as “the Poppy Lady of France” but has never received any official recognition of her work.

Peter Garland,  Lincoln Branch
Western Front Association,

September 2016

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