It has become a familiar sight on the weeks before Armistice Day (November, 11th) to see British officials, politicians, policeman and generally all sorts of people wearing poppies on their lapels. But what does the poppy stand for? “It’s to support the troops” – that is the most common answer and it is, usually, accurate enough, but here at The J.R. Chronicle we like to dig a little deeper.
As mentioned, the Poppy is mostly worn on the weeks preceding Armistice Day, which marks the date (and time, 11 a.m.) when, after four years of incessant fighting, guns stopped on the western front. It marks the end of the First World War.
Armistice Day has been remembered ever since it happened, with the first celebrations taking place in 1919. The poppy, however, only came a year later and its origin can be traced back to a poem.
While fighting in Flanders, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician, witnessed some of the most gruesome battles in human history. During World War I, as you may know, both sides resorted to the use of chemical weapons. McCrae fought in the second battle of Ypres, where the German launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of warfare, using chlorine gas.
His position was amongst the ones attacked and suffered heavy losses. McCrae had to perform the burial service for one of his companions and he noticed that poppies quickly grew around the graves of those that had fallen. The sight stuck with him and inspired him to write about it:
In Flanders Fields
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.
John McCrae, 1919
Soon after, inspired by McCrae’s poem, the American Legion started using the poppy as an item to show support for those who had died in World War I, with the red symbolizing the blood they spilled for their country. The poppy tradition soon spread to other Commonwealth countries and, today, it is mainly used in the United Kingdom and Canada.
Its meaning has evolved as well, honoring not only soldiers that died in World War I, but also other conflicts in which the UK or Canada have taken part it. In addition, today’s poppies are mostly made of plastic and are sold by The British Legion in a fundraising campaign known as the Poppy Appeal. These poppies are designed so that workers with a disability, such as wounded veterans, can easily assemble them, a principle that has been in place since 1922. Poppies are then sold until November 11th (Armistice or Remembrance Day) and the proceedings are used to support the Legion’s welfare work with the Armed Forces community.
It is a noble initiative that is one of the best ways of saying “thank you” to those that fight for us. Ideally, we would not have to fight and there would be no wars. That idea, however, seems utopian, at least today.