Remembrance Day Poppies

Remembrance Day Poppies

This year remembrance day falls on Sunday the 11th November and has long had an association with specific flower types that go hand in hand with the proceedings.

Of all the flowers used for memorial day it is remembrance day poppies that we associate most with the occasion. Poppies carry a range of meanings and are widely used as a symbol for remembrance for those who fell in the two world wars.

First written about by a writer who made the connection between the poppy and battlefields in the 19th century Napoleonic wars, the poppy was said to have sprung from the barren fields that were said to have blossomed with blood red lowers after the fighting had ended.

In the First World War, chalk soils became rich in lime from rubble following the bombardments. This created the ideal conditions Papaver rhoeas (a species of flowering plant in the poppy family) to thrive. When the war ended, the lime was quickly adsorbed back into the soil and the poppy was no longer seen in those places.

Most memorably, in the poem by John McCrae, entitled In Flanders Fields written in 1915, the poppy became the popular symbol that it is today for soldiers who died in battle.

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae 

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.

In this field in Belgium, there was little that survived the bloody battles and the ruins were as many as the bodies of fallen troops. The poppy, however, did survive and continued t grow year on year becoming a symbol of hope for those  that died in battle.

It was not until a few years after this poem that we first saw the poppy worn as a symbol of remembrance.  An American, Moina Michael, wore one while working in a canteen in a YMCA in New York, and in 1920 a French woman named Madame Guerin learned of her custom when visiting the United States. She carried over this custom on her return to France and manufactured hand made poppies to raise money for destitute children in areas of the country that had been affected by war. She herself wrote a poem called “We Shall Keep The Faith” in which she speaks of wearing a poppy, “in honour of the dead”.

On November 11th, 1921, the first poppy day was held in Britain and became a national success. Every November since that day, poppies have been worn as a symbol of remembrance throughout the country. The 11th of November was most notably chosen because most major hostilities during the First World War ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Those that fell in the war are also remembered with a few minutes silence at 11am in their honour.

Due to the nature of the poppy in that its petals don’t last long when cut as fresh flowers, so in order to keep on the tradition, plastic Remembrance Day Poppies are sold by the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal  instead, with proceeds going to the soldiers, veterans and supporting workers who work or have worked in the armed forces.

Prior to their meaning of remembrance, poppies also carry a mythological heritage pre-dating back to Roman times. They have been used as a symbol of sleep, peace and death due the opium extract and the common red blood colour of the flower. In Greek and Roman traditions, poppies were offered to the dead and used as emblems on tombstones to symbolise eternal sleep. There is also an alternative meaning for the poppy which symbolises the promise of resurrection after death due to their bright scarlet colour.

Originally grown as ornamental plants in 5000BC in Mesopotamia and found in Egyptian tombs, we see the poppy in Roman culture associated with Demeter,  who was the goddess of fertility and agriculture.

The long heritage and symbolism of the poppy thus reaches back far into our history as has long been a tradition of the poppy in connection with war, death and remembrance. It is also a very bright and pretty flower and is often grown simply for its beauty and cultivated as ornamental plants.


Remembrance Day Poppies