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The poppy of Flanders Fields: a Memorial Day symbol of sacrifice

Adobe Stock imagePapaver rhoeas, or Flanders poppy, is actually classified as a weed, which may explain why it survived to bloom so prolifically on the battlefields.
Red poppy rises from World War I battlefields to a place of honor
Gail Vanik

The Friday before Memorial Day is designated as National Poppy Day, and this year it falls on May 27.

If you’ve ever been out and about on Memorial Day weekend, most likely you’ve seen members of the American Legion at businesses selling small, red poppies that you can tuck in a buttonhole or wear on a ball cap. The poppies are sold as a fundraiser for the Legion, and your donation goes to help support the financial and medical needs of both active duty and veteran service members. But do you know how this tradition came about and how it became associated with Memorial Day?

The tradition dates to World War I. As the war took it’s toll on the battlefields of Europe, more than 8.5 million men died in battle, were injured or died from disease. Western Europe was the theater where some of the fiercest fighting took place, often tearing up the landscape. During the spring of 1915, Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian field surgeon stationed in Flanders, Belgium, was struck by the sight of the red blooms as they peeked through the ravaged countryside shortly after the Battle of Ypres, which had killed a friend. Inspired by their bright colors and tenacity, having witnessed the carnage from the war, he penned the poem “In Flanders Fields,” which became one of the most famous literary pieces to emerge from the war. Originally published in Punch magazine in 1915, it went on to be one of the most quoted poems used at memorial ceremonies at that time.

In Flanders Fields, by 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.

Flanders poppies.

Papaver rhoeas, or Flanders poppy, is actually classified as a weed, which may explain why it survived to bloom so prolifically on the battlefields.

In November 1915, Ladies Home Journal published the poem, and in the United States, a professor from the University of Georgia named Moina Michael read it and was touched by the history behind it. In response she wrote her own poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith” and as a sign of this faith she committed to always wear a red poppy.

Although Michael had taken a leave of absence during the war from her teaching position to volunteer at the YWCA in New York in order to help train workers that were heading overseas, she returned to Georgia afterward and began to craft her own red fabric poppies. By the mid-1920’s she had gained the attention of the American Legion and persuaded them to adopt the poppy as their symbol. They were then instrumental in having the poppy named as the official U.S. national emblem of remembrance.

Meanwhile, back in France, Anna Guerin had launched her own campaign by creating a similar National Poppy Day and making and selling, fabric poppies to raise funds to support war veterans. Invited to speak at the American Legion convention about her efforts, by November 1921 she had expanded her reach into England. The Poppy Factory was established in Richmond, England, the following year by Major George Howson and employed disabled servicemen to make the poppies.

The practice of wearing red poppies in remembrance caught on, and soon many nations followed. In Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand they are typically they are worn on Nov. 11, which is their Remembrance or Armistice Day – the day that they commemorate the signing of the armistice of 1918 that ended WWI.

In the United States, we wear the poppies on Memorial Day – the last Monday in May – at which time we honor those who sacrificed their lives in military service. Veterans Day in the United States, celebrated on Nov. 11, honors all living veterans.

The Poppy Factory now has two branches, one in Richmond, England, and another in Edinburgh, Scotland, and they produce as many as 45 million poppies annually. So when you see a Legionnaire this weekend, purchase a poppy knowing what it represents and how it all came about. Or better yet, buy a living poppy to plant in your garden this summer. Each time you see it’s bright red bloom waving in the wind, you’ll be reminded of Flanders Fields and those that we honor on Memorial Day.

Gail Vanik can be reached at 970-565-8274 or by email at fourseasons@animas.net.