Why were poppies so numerous on the fields of Flanders? And how did they become the symbol of remembrance?
Were the fields of Flanders always covered in poppies?
Not to such an extent as during the First World War. In 1914 there were hardly any poppies on the battlefields. The soils of Flanders and the north-west of France were fairly poor. The poppy thrives on richly manured ploughed land. One British soldier remarked that the Somme was far poorer for poppies than his native Norfolk.
When did the poppies first appear in huge numbers?
In 1915 the first records appeared of no-man’s land being “ablaze” with scarlet poppies. From this time onwards, letters sent home by soldiers constantly referred to the fields of poppies, and featured heavily in soldier’s poems.
RED POPPIES IN THE CORN
I’ve seen them in the morning light,
When white mists drifted by.
I’ve seen them in the dusk o’ night
Glow ‘gainst the starry sky.
The slender waving blossoms red,
Mid yellow fields forlorn.
A glory on the scene they shed,
Red Poppies in the Corn.
I’ve seen them, too, those blossoms red,
Show ‘gainst the Trench lines’ screen.
A crimson stream that waved and spread
Thro’ all the brown and green.
I’ve seen them dyed a deeper hue
Than ever nature gave,
Shell-torn from slopes on which they grew
To cover many a grave.
Bright blossoms fair by nature set
Along the dusty ways,
You cheered us, in the battle’s fret,
Thro’ long and weary days.
You gave us hope: if fate be kind,
We’ll see that longed-for morn,
When home again we march and find
Red Poppies in the Corn.
Lieutenant-Colonel W. Campbell Galbraith 1917)
Did poppies appear on other battlefields?
Yes, particularly at Gallipoli, where a valley south of Anzac beach was named Poppy Valley.
Why did so many poppies appear during the First World War?
The war created prime conditions for poppies to flourish in Flanders and north-west France. Continual bombardment disturbed the soil and brought the seeds to the surface. They were fertilized by nitrogen in the explosives and lime from the shattered rubble of the buildings.
Most poignantly, the blood and the bones of the millions of men, horses, donkeys, dogs and other animals richly fertilized the soil. The longer the war continued, the more men died, and the more the poppies thrived.
When did the poppy become the flower of remembrance?
It all started with Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian medical doctor, who in In May 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres was working in a dressing station alongside the Yprelee Canal. On 2nd May his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of the Canadian Field Artillery was blown to bits by an artillery bombardment. As many of Helmer’s body parts as possible were somehow gathered and buried at Essex Farm Cemetery. At the funeral, McCrae stood in for the chaplain and took the service. Later that day when he came off duty, McCrae sat on the back of an ambulance and, looking over the fresh graves and the wild poppies, penned a poem.
IN FLANDERS FIELDS
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae (1917)
In Flanders Fields was published on 8th December 1915 in Punch and became an immediate sensation in the trenches and around the English-speaking world. The poppy became the symbol of the war dead. It was seen as representing the souls of those who died between 1914 and 1918, transformed into a million blood-red flowers.
What’s the origin of the wreath of artificial poppies?
John McCrae did not survive the war, dying of pneumonia on 28th January 1918 while commanding No. 3 Canadian General Hospital in Boulogne. His friends and comrades, unable to find wild poppies to lay on his grave, ordered a wreath of artificial poppies from Paris.
Was the poppy already an emblem of death?
Yes. Archaeologists exploring a cave in Spain in 1935 found baskets of poppy capsules laid beside human remains dating back to 4000 BC. On a 3,000-year-old statue from Minoan Crete, a Poppy Goddess statue wears an opium poppy headdress. According to classical Greek myths, poppies flowered along the banks of the River Lethe which flowed to Hades, and from which the dead had to drink to forget their former existence in the world of the living. Its petals are the colour of blood, and the opium poppy is a source of morphine, a powerful painkiller which made the physical agonies of war more bearable, and which was a derivative of opium.
What’s the origin of the sale of poppies?
McCrae’s poem inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to make and sell red silk poppies which were brought to England by a French woman, Anna Guérin. The British Legion, formed in 1921, ordered 9 million of these poppies and sold them on 11 November that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately and that first ever Poppy Appeal raised over £106,000 to help WW1 veterans with employment and housing. Poppy-wearing gathered momentum, and in 1933 poppies started to be made in a purpose-built factory in Richmond, which produces millions of poppies each year.
Can you recommend a book on this subject?
This is a wonderful book. I learned a lot, and ended up with even more respect for these mostly young men who lived and died in such an appalling war.
More about the First World War
You might also be interested in these articles of mine about the First World War in Belgium:
- What happened after the Armistice? For thousands of Belgian people, the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 marked the beginning of another grim struggle that was to last for decades.
- Visiting the Menin Gate for the Last Post. What’s the origin of the Last Post and why is it played every day at the Menin Gate in Ypres?
- How did the First World War start? A timeline of events.