Every 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, France, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom observe Remembrance Day in honor of the armed forces members who have died in the line of duty. It is also known as “Poppy Day,” with decorations and posters usually covered with beautiful blood-red and symbolic poppy flowers. In 2014, ceramic artist Paul Cummings and stage designer Tom Piper, along with 300 others, worked in creating 888,246 ceramic red poppies, each representing one British or Colonial soldier killed in the war. The public art installation called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” was created in the moat of the Tower of London, England. Ever wondered when we started associating these flowers with Remembrance Day?

View of the Tower of London from The Shard, August 2014, with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red
View of the Tower of London from The Shard, August 2014, with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red visible in the moat (© Hilarmont (Kempten), CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia)

Flowers of War

Probably one of the most popular flowers, the Papaver rhoeas is native to Eurasia and North Africa, although it is commonly found in Central Europe today. Other common names aside from red poppy are common poppy, corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy, and Flanders poppy. It is considered an agricultural weed, an annual herbaceous species of a flowering plant. Before World War I, these red wildflowers would occupy the meadows of Flanders every spring. However, during the war, the bombings and constant trampling of the boots going back and forth made the poppies disappear, with no chance to regrow and bloom. The four years of unrelenting war and destruction did not only make Western Belgium the resting place of these red poppies but as well as the approximately 10 million soldiers that were killed in the field, while some 20 million more were wounded. According to American Meadows, over 2,500 poppy seeds per square foot were found and able to bloom again once the war was over.

“In Flanders Fields The Poppies Blow”

It’s one thing to talk about the brutality of war; staring right back at its face is another. When Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian brigade surgeon and poet, was sent to tend the wounded right after the Second Battle of Ypres, he saw for the first time the harrowing and devastating effects to the soldiers of the German’s lethal chlorine gas, where around 87,000 Allied soldiers died, got wounded, or went missing. Among the lives that were lost that day was Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, McCrae’s friend.

The ground was red that day, both from the blood of the servicemen and the bright red blossoms shooting up from the battered ground. McCrae, on the spot, wrote a poem titled “In Flanders Fields,” and seemingly not happy with how his words turned out, he discarded it. However, one of his fellow officers took and sent it anonymously to the Punch magazine that, in late 1915, published the poem. It became greatly popular that it would be used several times during memorial ceremonies.

Lest We Forget

Lest we forget
Lest we forget (Alex Layzell from Norwich, Norfolk, United KingdomCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A professor at the University of Georgia named Moinna Michael read McCrae’s poem in Ladies’ Home Journal. When the war broke out, she volunteered at the New York headquarters of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) which trained and sponsored workers overseas. And so when she read the poem, she got inspired that she wrote her own poem in response entitled “We Shall Keep The Faith.”

Moina Michael, promoter of Poppy Day observance, commemorated in US postage stamp of 1948.
Moina Michael, promoter of Poppy Day observance, commemorated in US postage stamp of 1948. (US. Post Office Department, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

More than words, she vowed to always wear a red poppy in remembrance of the sacrifices that the soldiers made. When she went back to the university town of Athens, she decided to make and sell red silk poppies to raise money for the returning veterans. By mid-1920, she managed to convince Georgia’s branch of the veteran group American Legion to use the poppy as its symbol. Soon enough, the poppy was voted by the National American Legion as its official symbol of remembrance.

At the same time, a Frenchwoman named Anna Guérin helped convince the American Legion members to adopt the poppy as their symbol and to join her by celebrating National Poppy Day in the US in May the following year.

When she went back to France, she organized to sell artificial poppies with the help of French women, children, and veterans for the purpose of restoring the war-damaged areas of France. She brought her campaign to England within a year that in November 1921, the Royal British Legion held its first “Poppy Appeal” that sold millions of silk flowers. The over £106,000 that they raised went towards helping the veterans find jobs and housing.