Updated: Nov 14, 2020
Many British nationals across Spain still wear their poppy around the end of October and beginning of November. It is not uncommon for inquisitive language students to ask about the flower we wear on our lapels. Many Spaniards have developed a growing awareness of the symbol as it is frequently seen on club and international football shirts. We take a look at the origin of the symbol and what the campaign means today.
The horrors of World War I
As the blood sodden fields of Flanders fell silent after the armistice that ended World War I, it is said that poppies started to grow in large numbers. It was not a difficult leap for people to consider the deep red of the flower as highly symbolic of the blood sacrifice of the soldiers in the horrendous confines on trench warfare.
In actual fact, poppies were observed growing in large numbers as early as 1915. We know this as soldiers wrote of the blaze of red on the battlefield in their letters home. In fact, after the fighting on the Gallipoli peninsula in Ottoman Turkey, there were so many poppies in a valley south of Anzac beach that it was named Poppy Valley.
The corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) thrives on richly manured, ploughed land. The land of northern France was not ideal for poppies but war changed the environment. Continual bombardment churning the land and bringing seeds to the surface where they were fertilized by the rich atmosphere of nitrogen from the explosives and lime from building rubble made the setting perfect for corn poppies. This poignantly combined with the bones of the men and horses that fertilized the soil and as the war went on the more the poppies thrived.
It is hard to comprehend the human cost of The Great War, or World War I. The industrialized mechanization of weaponry combined with the horrendous conditions of trench warfare was to exact a heavy price on the population. A recruitment campaign to sign up volunteers also created a propaganda storm. Lord Kitchener pointing at the observer encouraged huge numbers to sign up together. New regiments were formed of the young men of individual towns or districts. Work places or sports clubs. This generated a powerful esprit d'corps but was to also see almost total devastation of localised populations when casualty rates of 90% plus were suffered in a single morning by regiments in action.
This pair of images of the men of the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders in front of Edinburgh Castle perhaps gives a powerful indication of the unimaginable sacrifice endured. The Regiment left with nearly a thousand men, shortly after Christmas 1914, a mere 30 men returned.
Bulldogz toured the Somme battlefield in 2016. Our associated podcast documentary and reflections on our experience can be found here.
The seed of the symbol
The Poppy was first used as a symbol of remembrance by a Canadian medical doctor, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae in May 1915 during the second battle of Ypres. His good friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was killed on May 2nd. After performing the duties of Chaplain at Helmer's funeral. McCrae sat overlooking the Essex Farm Cemetery, with the graves amongst the wild poppies and penned a poem, entitled In Flanders Field.
The poem was published in Punch December that year and became an immediate international success. The poppy was adopted as an unofficial symbol of the war dead. McCrae sadly succumbed to pneumonia in January 1918. His comrades were unable to find wild poppies for his grave so ordered an artificial wreath of poppies from Paris.
The origins of the fundraising appeals
For a charity appeal and symbol that is viewed as a powerful image of British culture, it turns out the appeal emerged from a combination of a French and an American woman being inspired by the poetry of a Canadian solider.
Moina Michael, an American academic was inspired to wear a poppy as a symbol after reading McCrae's poem. After the war, she taught a class of disabled servicemen at the University of Georgia. She came upon the idea of making and selling silk poppies to help raise money for disabled veterans. Michael was to become known as the "Poppy Lady". One of the famous Liberty ships build during World War II in the face of the devastation of merchant shipping was named SS Moina Michael. Launched on November 1944 and eventually broken up for scrap in 1971 in Florida.
Madame Guérin (Anna Alix Boulle) was a French lecturer who passionately campaigned for French war widows and orphans. She toured the US during World War I raising donations. After the war she was commissioned by the French Government to return to the US to create an American-Franco Children's league (with a Poppy as their emblem) to raise funds for that official campaign. While in America she started to hold Poppy Days, selling paper poppies to raise money. She developed an idea she called "Inter-Allied Poppy Day" which she presented to the American Legion Convention in Cleveland, Ohio in September 1920.
The Poppy was adopted by the newly formed Royal British Legion in 1921 after Guérin convinced Field Marshall Douglas Haig of her idea.
After the armistice on November 11 1918, the day was inaugurated as a day of memorial by King George V on the same day in 1919. The armistice had come into effect at 11:00am on the 11th day of the 11th month. Originally named Armistice Day in Commonwealth countries to commemorate the dead of World War I and Veterans Day in the US, the observance has become known as Remembrance Day in the UK, and is marked with a nationwide two minute silence. On the Sunday closest to the 11th, the country holds memorial services on the day named Remembrance Sunday.
Lapel paper poppies are sold in the weeks leading up to the Remembrance day events. The poppies have no fixed price and sold for a donation. Poppies in England are made all year round in a dedicated factory in Richmond, London. Scottish Poppies are made in a similar installation in Edinburgh. Monies raised are for the Royal British Legion to provide financial, social, political and emotional support to British Armed Forces veterans and their families. The flower and the appal have grown to cover the the casualties of all conflicts but is still a powerful symbol of gratitude, remembrance and poignant memorial.
In recent years the appeal has come in for criticism, people, including some British army veterans, have argued the symbol has been hijacked to promote military action and that poppy wearing has become aggressively compulsory for those in public view. The poppy has been described as a seasonal fashion accessory, newsreaders and journalists have spoken of "poppy fascism" or concern that a lack of a poppy is considered an act of treachery or lack of concern for the war dead.
The Royal British Legion is quoted as saying the poppy “honours all those who have sacrificed their lives to protect the freedoms we enjoy today, and so the decision to wear it must be a matter of personal choice. If the poppy became compulsory it would lose its meaning and significance. We are thankful for every poppy worn, but we never insist upon it, to do so would be contrary to the spirit of Remembrance and all that the poppy stands for.” This stance was tested when some football players opted to not wear a poppy emblem when playing. Perhaps the most famous example was Northern Irish born player James McClean. In an open letter he set out his reasons, stating he had upmost respect for the "lost souls" of the two global conflicts but he felt as the commemoration included later conflicts, including those in the tempestuous conflicts in Northern Ireland. The Poppy has been worn by Loyalist paramilitaries to commemorate their own members and this combined with the view that the poppy also supports the soldiers who killed Irish civilians. This stance has tested his relationship with the fans of his various clubs during his time in the Premier League.
It is a little known fact that shirts with the poppy emblem sewn into them are auctioned to raise funds for the Royal British Legion. McClean has donated his unadorned shirts to a Dublin children's charity.
The Home Nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) football associations were fined for displaying poppies in black armbands as it was deemed a political symbol. FIFA drafted new rules regarding the poppy symbol to allow teams to show their respect, provided opposition teams do not protest.
The scandal is not new. The first White Poppies were produced in 1933 by the Women's Co-Operative Guild, promoted as a "pacifist alternative" to the official emblem. It was worn to promote the desire to see and end to all wars. The White Poppy is still sold today by the Peace Pledge Union.
Yet, for many, especially families of service personnel, October and November are a short period of time during the year where they can show their respect and gratitude to the fallen. In the US, there is a custom to offer thanks directly to someone who has served. Britain does not have such a custom, a poppy is an unassuming way to do so. Many still take the chance to show dignified respect to the lost generation of World War I and to honour the dwindling numbers of World War II veterans. We reflect on the lost comrades of our grand fathers and the survival trauma of those who did not die. It is often seen as a glorification of war or an emblem of Imperial power. It is considered neither by the vast majority of those that wear them. The refrain that is used by the Royal British Legion is "Lest We Forget". It is a requiem for the fallen. It is the physical, visible and tangible reminder of the emotive words of a single stanza from the poem For the Fallen by Robert Laurence Binyon. The mantra that keeps the stolen dreams of a generation of men and boys alive in our collective memory:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them
"Some Foreign Field" by The Lost Clauses:
Music written by Donald Barnett,
Words and arrangement by Merrick Wells.
Acoustic Guitar Donald Barnett
Electric Guitar Benjamin Ansell
Trumpet Miguel Ángel Laita Chóliz
Keyboards, Vocals & Programming Merrick Wells
Miguel Ángel features with kind permission of Artistas del Gremio
Featured in the song are two letters. The first is from Sam Hardman to his family, written merely hours before he was killed in action in the Accrington Pals attack on Serre on the morning on July 1st 1916. More information on him can be found here.
The second letter is an example of those sent to the relatives of casualties of the Newfoundland Regiment. It features in the 2016 Penguin book "Somme - Into the Breach" by Hugh Sebag-Montefoire. The book can be purchased via Amazon here
Footage is taken from various newsreel sources and the final scenes are from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission youtube channel.
"Hope and Glory: The Somme Centenary". A tour of the battlefield with Nigel Farage. A profound and emotional experience.