THE POPPY – SYMBOL OF REMEMBRANCE
Lieutenant Colonel (ret’d) William A. Smy, OMM, CD, UE
Year after year the poppy recalls to us, especially those in the British Empire and Commonwealth, the courage, sacrifice and loss of over 100,000 Canadians who have died in two world wars, Korea, and post-war peacekeeping and peacemaking duties..
The casualties of the First World War left an enormous emotional impact around the world and in 1919, as the first anniversary of the armistice approached, there came a recognition of the importance of honouring the war dead. Sir Percy Fitzpatrick suggested to King George V that two minutes’ silence be observed at the London war cenotaph at the first Remembrance Day parade. The British government agreed and a personal message from the King was published in all British newspapers. A tradition was established. But another tradition had already begun to spread around the world.
In November 1918, Moina Michael, an American war-time instructor in the training establishment for overseas WMCA workers at Columbia University, came upon John McCrae’s poem, ‘In Flanders Fields” and was so impressed with it that she wrote her own reply which she entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith.” She was then attending a conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries in New York City, and had McCrae’s poem read to the conference whereupon attendees asked if she could purchase poppies for them to wear. She later recalled, “I have always considered that I, then and there, consummated the first sale of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy.”
By 1919 the campaign to make the poppy the accepted symbol of remembrance was well under way, and in August 1920 the Georgia convention of the State Department American Legion passed a resolution to endorse the poppy as “the Memorial Flower of the American Legion.” The American Legion then made the “Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy” its national symbol of remembrance in September of that year.
As Armistice Day (as 11 November was known in the United States) approached one American newspaper reported that “every patriotic man, woman and child…will wear a poppy to show that the brave dead have not died in vain.” In France, the American and French Children’s’ League covered the graves of American soldiers with poppies.
In the United Kingdom, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig had worked to bring about unity among the various ex-servicemen’s organizations, and in June 1921, the British Legion was formed. In August, Madame Anne Guerin, who had worked with the American and French Children’s’ League to make the symbol the Poppy of France, approached the British Legion and asked if the Legion would be interested in buying her money-making poppies. The Legion agreed, and suggested that people in the UK should wear a small red poppy on the following 11 November as a token of remembrance. Madame Guerin then visited Canada, and her poppies were sold here for the first time on the same day. In Montreal, John McRae’s home for fourteen years, the day was described as a “gorgeous fête.”
Earl Haig and the British Legion were approached by a number of veterans and it was agreed that in the United Kingdom the Disabled Society should manufacture the poppy, commonly referred to as the “Flanders Poppy.” In Canada the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment undertook the manufacture (the Royal Canadian Legion continues this duty).
In 1929 thousands of poppies were released from the dining room ceiling of the House of Lords during a Victoria Cross reunion, and Graham Thomson Lyall, VC, who had lived in Welland, Chippawa and Niagara Falls before the war, described how the Victoria Cross recipients all planted poppies outside Westminster Hall which were later sold by auction.
Today, the Poppy Factory in England manufactures between 30 and 34 million poppies, and certainly at least an equal number must be produced in various nations around the world. The small red poppies that John McCrae saw in the rough graveyard at Essex Farm near Ypres in May 1915 have become the symbol of sacrifice and remembrance around the world.