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The Remembrance Poppy: a Short History

Courtesy of St. Georges Society

Contributor Ramtin Hakimjavadi

The common poppy, Papaver rhoeas, is an honoured symbol on November 11th. This annual herbaceous species of flowering plant completes its life cycle within one growing season, and then dies. Yet, it is an immortal symbol for remembering fallen soldiers since the first blood-red Remembrance Poppies bloomed in the war-ridden fields of France during World War I (WWI).

Canada is deeply rooted in the origin story of the Poppy. Any historical account of the Remembrance Poppy must begin with the Canadian Medical Officer Lieutenant-Colonel John McCraie. He immortalized this flower when he described it in a poem titled, “In Flanders Fields”. In the context of WWI, the blooming of the flower juxtaposed the graves of soldiers in northern France and Belgium – the first sign of life in muddy fields full of death.

The poem was first published in the London-based magazine Punch in December 2015, but the Great War Veteran’s Association in Canada officially adopted the poppy as its Flower of Remembrance on July 5, 1921. Still, it is the depiction of the Poppy in McCraie’s poetry that inspired the use of this flower as an international symbol for peace, sacrifice, and remembrance.

As you wear a poppy today, imagine yourself joining a group of millions of other people worldwide. Canadians are not the only people to sport poppies on Remembrance Day. It is an international practice for the remembrance of fallen soldiers and those who serve today,  particularly within the British Commonwealth countries.

On the 11th day of the 11th month, the Poppy is worn in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and, although less commonly, also in the United States. The Remembrance Day Poppy, as we recognize it today, had an international birth, and each country has a unique way of using it to promote peace and remembrance.

Although the first important Poppy Days were held in the United States in 1920, today poppies are not commonly worn as a memorial symbol. Instead, on November 11th – their Veteran’s day - a more common adornment on the lapel is a red, white and blue ribbon.

In New Zealand, poppies carry significance for two days in the year. The Poppy is still worn on November 11th, but the more important Poppy Day has fallen on the Friday before Anzac Day, which is held on April 25th. By a twist of fate, when the New Zealand Returning Soldiers’ Association ordered 350,000 poppies from France to be delivered in November 1921 – synchronizing with other countries’ first Poppy Day – their shipment came too late. The first Poppy Day in New Zealand was then held the day before Anzac Day, 1922.

The Poppy continues to gain popularity as an iconic symbol in some parts of the world. South Africa recently experienced a spike in its usage – the South African Legion hosts Poppy Day on the Saturday nearest Remembrance Day to raise funds to assist in the welfare work among military veterans. Here, November 11th is a time to commemorate the fallen in the two world wars, the Korean war, the Border war, and the internal conflict.

Wearing the Poppy is an important tradition worldwide, lest we forget its symbolic origins. Dating back to WWI, the red poppies were among the first to flower in the devastated battlefields of northern France and Belgium. According to folk wisdom, the vivid red of the poppy derives from the blood of the soldiers who died in the fields. In reality, due to the war, the chalk soils became rich in lime from rubble, allowing papaver rhoeas to grow. After the war ended, the lime quickly dissipated, and thus the Poppy disappeared. On this day, there is no better symbol for remembrance.

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