the Poppies of Flanders FieldsFlanders Fields

The Poppies of Flanders Fields

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)

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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.

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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)

John McCrae

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.

poppy wreath

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. Click the photo of the book above to buy or read more about it.

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84 replies »

  1. Thank you so much, Denzil, for this timely, thoughtful, in-depth look back at the significance of poppies on November 11th each year. It’s so nice to know the history of why we wear poppies today as we honor the service and sacrifice of so many brave veterans and their families!
    With much gratitude…

  2. It is difficult to imagine just how awful life in those trenches must have been. The poppies that bright some colour and beauty yet flourished because of the nutrients from the dead. A very apt representation of the lost souls…

  3. Thanks Denzil, such a lot of fascinating information. Thank you also for the review of ‘Where Poppies Blow’. I really would like to read that, but think I may be too sensitive to read the bits about the horses and mules. 🙁

    • Yes, some of the information was too harrowing. We sometimes forget about the loss of animal life during those four years. The number of horses and mules that were brought over from both North and South America was astounding.

      • Thanks for warning me, Denzil … I think I’d better pass on this one. I do find it amazing though to discover how much comfort nature brought to the soldiers in the trenches.

  4. Terrific, Denzil. I’d never seen this explanation of the horrific “fertilizer” that promoted the growth during WWI. I’m going to order that book today. And glad you included a mention of the flowers in ancient times, used in burial rites even during the Neolithic period.
    I especially appreciate your post, because folks in the U.S. are barely commemorating the First World War. We’re an unhappy, divided and distracted land right now. Remembering the sacrifices and costs of wars is a vital part of trying to understand history and to try to progress, honoring the fallen and the veterans is also essential to really feeling the value of peace.
    I’ve just moved to Boston, and am looking forward to revisiting Saint-Gaudens’ memorial to the Mass. 54th Regiment (from the American Civil War) – – it’s a wonderful work of art, and I’ll try to get a close-up shot of the poppies incorporated in it.

    • Thanks Robert for your enthusiastic response. Over here we are still very occupied with commemoration and remembrance, especially with the centenary of the Armistice approaching. I look forward to reading a post of the Saint-Gaudens’ m emorial.

  5. I’m shivering as I read this entire article, Denzil. I knew only a little of what you’ve written about here. The history of the poppy is one of those things that connects the profane world to the spiritual and reminds us that whatever our beliefs, we are linked by our common desire to live in peace within the family of man. I’m going to show this post to my husband, a Vietnam War vet. Thank you for a profoundly moving presentation.

  6. Like so many people here, I have never understood or taken the time to discover the poppy connection to war, but I have always wondered about it. You have made it so easy to learn with this post. And I really appreciate the poems. They are poignant.

    I am happy to share this today. Thank you so much!

  7. Beautiful poems and interesting history. I actually didn’t know that the poppies were a symbol of remembrance (and war), until I saw them everywhere during a visit to New Zealand on Anzac Day, where the battle of Gallipoli also a place I had never heard of until then) seemed to be talked and exhibited as the main event during the war. Did you find these two poems in the book “WHERE POPPIES BLOW” as well?

    • Hello Kim, thanks for following and reading. And also for the link to your own blog. It’s late now but I have bookmarked it to read properly tomorrow.

  8. Great post Denzil. We visited the WWI memorials at the end of this summer. They are impressive and terribly depressing. The 2 WWs destroyed any illusion of linear progression in history. Attila, Genghis Khan or the Vikings didn’t cause anywhere near 75 Million casualties (of which 45 M civilians).

    • Thanks Hans for your comment. What I find most depressing at the moment is the rift between what “normal people” believe and hope for as lessons learned from these two world wars and their consequences, and what some of the world leader seem to believe, that aggression is going to lead to peace.

      • Dulce bellum inexpertis – “War is sweet to them that know it not”. (Pindar via Erasmus https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Pindar). Erasmus went even so far that there is no circumstance that ever justifies war. Hence belligerent leaders should loose their mandates in an ideal world. And fortunately we’re not too old to remain a trifle idealistic. But then again, neither Pindar or Erasmus were ever confronted with anything like the two World Wars.

  9. Lest we forget. Took my four year old to lay our poppy yesterday at Cimitere de Bruxelles. Moving as ever to see the war graves (Commonwealth, Belgian, German. So many young lives.) It’s a hundred years after a family member Was killed at Oppy Wood, Battle of Arras. Too easy to forget the lessons of history and the carnage of war on the European continent. Thank you for your ever inspirational blogging.

    • Thank you for your positive comment Julia. I wonder what your 4-year old thought of it. Maybe too young to understand, but I feel sure he or she would have picked up the solemnity and seriousness of the place. It’s good that we pass the message down to our children and grandchildren.

  10. Most insightful blog post of the week thx. For me the line the ‘war created prime conditions for poppies to flourish in Flanders and north-west France’ was an eye opener. I never thought about this.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this . . . . moving to discover the history behind the poppy especially as I visited the Flanders fields this year. Thank you also for the book recommendation, have ordered . . now just hope I can find the courage to read it.

  12. I didn’t know this about the poppies! Thanks for the information.
    My grandfather and his brother (Canadian) both fought in WWI. The brother, Henry, went missing at The Somme. My husband and I toured WWI battlefields and Cemeteries a few years ago. It was both sobering and gratifying to find the approximate local where Henry’s resting place might have been marked by red poppies. https://gogreygirl.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/in-flanders-fields/

  13. Prachtig Denzil.Ik kende het verhaal van de klaprozen en we mogen nooit de strijd van zoveel jonge mannen vergeten.Nooit meer oorlog maar we hebben er niets uitgeleerd..Een paar egotrippers sturen af op weer een oorlog.

  14. Denzil, this is absolutely lovely. I want to re-blog it on Veteran’s Day this year. I was in Hungary in 1997 as a volunteer morale, recreation specialist with U.S. Army. I visited my friend in Sarajevo. Sarajevo was a city of camouflage and roses. Camouflage uniforms from the NATO countries were lodged in various parts of the city. The roses were blooming around the bullet pocked/mortar punched buildings because of nitrogen from the ammo as you described here. On the streets, the Roses of Sarajevo were really an imprint left from a mortar shell. The remaining scar looked like a rose and many of the scars were filled in with red resin as a memorial to the people killed during the siege. According to some estimates an average of 329 bombs hit Sarajevo every day, with a maximum of 3,777 recorded on July 22, 1993.

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