On the eleventh of November 1918, France fell silent as men all over Europe put down rifles and stepped out of trenches – the world began to slowly awake from a five-year nightmare: millions were dead, hundreds of thousands injured and the world map changed forever. One hundred years on, the symbol most synonymous with the chaos of the First World War is not the stone crosses that sit on village greens across the country, but a small red flower.
Every year, around the start of November, the poppy begins to appear on the coats and jackets of almost everyone you walk past on the street. These little paper flowers are one of the key markers of the year and have become an integral part of how we remember those who have died in conflict. But why has this symbol become so prevalent?
The history of our current relationship with the poppy begins on the 3rd of May 1915, during the second battle of Ypres. John McCrae was an officer in the Canadian expeditionary force, and he had just presided over the funeral of a close friend. As he sat on the back of an ambulance he began writing the poem that would become “In Flanders Fields”: one of the best-known pieces in the cannon of wartime poetry. It is this poem that starts the story of the poppy as we know it today.
Much poetry from this time in the war makes reference to the poppy. The small red flower was a welcome burst of colour amongst grey upturned earth and a reminder that a world beyond no man’s land existed. The summer of 1915 saw an explosion of the flowers across the newly fertilized battlefields of France. The irony that all this new life came from their fallen comrades was not lost on the soldiers. To them, the millions of flowers that sprouted that summer were a symbol of hope at a time when attitudes in the trenches were changing. The chivalric dreams of unready teenagers were giving way to the realities of war and it’s horrors. The melancholy poems that poured out of the front at the time track this seachange in attitudes.
McCrae’s poem was published in Canada a few months later and it quickly took hold in the Canadian psyche as a symbol of remembrance. The poppy was such an important aspect of National mourning at the time that in 1918 – three days before the end of the war – Professor Moina Michael vowed to wear a poppy as a private symbol of remembrance, and did so for many years.
After the war, Moina became a teacher to disabled veterans and soon found that many of them were struggling financially as they were unable to work. In an effort to help, Moina began selling silk poppies to raise funds and the practice was soon adopted by the British Legion Appeal Fund (later The Royal British Legion). 1921 saw the first poppy appeal in the UK, and since then it has been held every year; raising money to help veterans and those affected by war. 2018 marks the centenary of the armistice and the poppy is still one of the most recognisable signs of remembrance for many around the world.
Gary works in the Primrose product loading team, writing product descriptions and other copy. With seven years as a professional chef under his belt, he can usually be found experimenting in the kitchen or sat reading a book.