As Remembrance Sunday approaches, Florence Sheward pays tribute to the poppy, one of Britain’s most potent symbols
The First World War ended on 11 November 1918. Much of the fighting had taken place in Western Europe, ravaging otherwise picturesque countryside. One of the few flowers to thrive in this environment was the red Flanders poppy, native to its namesake part of northern Belgium. It was the Canadian military surgeon Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who observed the symbolism of the poppy when he penned In Flanders Fields as a tribute to a friend lost in the Second Battle of Ypres. The poem begins “In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row”, drawing a graceful parallel between the resilient flowers and the individual memorials to lost men.
McCrae’s poem in turn inspired American professor Moina Michael to write her own poem, We Shall Keep the Faith, and create silk poppies that were brought to Britain by the French lecturer Anna Guérin. The British Legion (before gaining royal status and founded in May 1921) was quick to adopt the idea and sold them on 11 November, with proceeds helping war veterans find housing and new jobs. By 1926, production moved to a former brewery in Richmond, London, which continues to make around 36 million poppies each year.
In July 2014, artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper marked the centenary of Britain entering the First World War by opening the art installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. For this, the duo filled the Tower of London’s moat with 888,246 ceramic poppies – one for each British military fatality during the war.
2021 marks 100 years since the nation’s collective Remembrance customs, such as wearing poppies, were first established. Traditions also includes the two-minute silence on Armistice Day, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month; and the march-past at the Cenotaph, which will take place this Sunday 14th November 2021.
Yet while the poppy has become a potent symbol of remembrance, there has also been much debate about what else it does and does not stand for.
The Royal British Legion now states that the poppy is neither a symbol of death nor a sign of support for war, that the red flower was not chosen to represent “the colour of blood” and it should reflect no religious or political bias either. Such firm beliefs simply help to underline what a potent symbol the humble flower has become.