As the centenary of the First World War armistice approaches, Florence Sheward pays tribute to this potent symbol of remembrance
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 pennedIn 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) 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.
On 17 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. The installation proved so popular that two smaller versions have toured the UK ever since as part of the 14-18 Now programme. Forthcoming sites will include the Imperial War Museum North (8 September to 25 November), with the Manchester venue also hosting a new armistice exhibition, Lest We Forget? (27 July to 24 February 2019).
“Over the past 100 years, the artificial poppy has continued to find contemporary relevance in representing not only the dead of the First World War, but those who have lost their lives to conflict ever since,” says curator Emma Harrold. “This exhibition will display a range of objects relating to the poppy, from examples of pressed flowers sent home from the Western Front to early fabric poppies sold in the immediate aftermath of war.”
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 meaning of the artificial flower has been often disputed, especially as modern conflicts have generally tended to lack the popular consensus of the world wars,” says Harrold.
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.