The choice of using the poppy as a symbol of Remembrance in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand amongst others is largely the result of lines drawn from the poem 'In Flanders Fields" written by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae in May 1915. He later died in 1918 at Ypres.
The first two lines of the poem records the growing of the poppies across some of the bloodiest battlefields of World War I:
"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row"
It would seem that the battlefields of northern France and Belgium allowed poppies to flourish because during the tremendous bombardments of that war the chalk soils became rich in lime from rubble, allowing 'popaver rhoeas' to thrive. When the war ended the lime was quickly absorbed, and the poppy began to disappear again.
In 1918 a New York City YWCA worker, Moina Michael, started selling silk poppies to raise funds for disabled war veterans in Georgia. Following her efforts, the American Legion Auxiliary adopted the poppy as symbol of remembrance in 1921.
This inspired a Frenchwoman visiting the US, Anna Guerin, to produce artificial poppies similar to the ones worn today. On her return to France she decided to use handmade poppies to raise money for the destitute children in war- torn areas of the country. Later she came to London and presented them to British war general, Field Marshall Douglas Haig, president of the Royal British Legion, whose decision to back the project led to their popularity today. He was joined in this decision by veterans' organisations in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
In Britain the first donations for artificial poppies were given on 11 November 1921, raising £106,000 – an equivalent spending power of more than £3.1million in today's terms, a huge sum for the time. Major George Howson, a young infantry officer, had formed the Disabled Society to help disabled ex-Service people from World War One. Howson suggested to the British Legion that Society members should make poppies, and the artificial flowers were designed so that someone who had lost the use of a hand could assemble them with one hand – a principle that has endured. I remember growing up near to one of their (now closed) workshops at erskine outside Glasgow. Today, a team of fifty people produce the poppies in a factory outside London, most of them disabled and connected to the Armed Forces. More than 36 million poppies will be made.
Although they have no particular price, the selling of poppies then became a major source of income to help support war invalids and veterans in general.
In the 1930's a white Poppy also appeared in Britain when a member of the No More War Movement suggested that the British Legion should be asked to imprint 'No More War' in the centre of the red poppies instead of 'Haig Fund'. Unsuccessful in this a few years later the idea was again discussed by the Co-operative Women's Guild who in 1933 produced the first white poppies to be worn on Armistice Day (now called Remembrance Day). The Guild stressed that the white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War - a war in which many of the women lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers. Rather it was intended to remember all those who died in war, civilians as well as those in the military and also symbolise the hope that conflicts be resolved by means other than war. The following year the newly founded Peace Pledge Union joined the CWG in the distribution of the poppies and later took over their annual promotion which it still does.
In the 1930s, when the white poppy was first established, some women lost their jobs for wearing them. Others object that the money raised by the white poppy appeal is diverted from the funds raised by the red poppy appeal. In 1986 British prime minister Margaret Thatcher expressed her "deep distaste" for the symbol. In New Zealand the Veterans' Affairs Minister Judith Collins has recently claimed the white poppy appeal was "incredibly disrespectful to those who served their country". More wisely perhaps, the Royal British Legion has no official opinion on the wearing of white poppies, stating that it "is a matter of choice, the Legion doesn't have a problem whether you wear a red one or a white one, both or none at all".
Remembering is surely what is important.
linked young casahistoria site: World War 1