‘In Flanders Fields’: a history of the poppy

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The iron scent of blood stains the Remembrance Poppy. In the black-magic fields of Flanders and the Somme, corn-poppy petals are nourished by the memory of ‘the missing’. It is as if the souls of those who died there between 1914 and 1918 have been transformed into a million blood-red flowers, whose enduring image reaches out to the farthest limits of our imagination.

From Caesar to Napoleon, this ancient land has been won and lost in countless battles. But today, it is the armies of the dead from a war not quite a century old that march again.

The Remembrance Poppy is a volatile flower – a barometer of conscience and conflict, whose story reaches back into the distant past. How and why did such a humble flower become a universal symbol of remembrance and commemoration?

Death and dreams

The story of the Remembrance Poppy is one of the strangest and most compelling of the 20th century. It is tragic and uplifting, deadly and comforting, intimately personal yet international in spirit.

The poppy is an ancient symbol, yet also a modern icon of war and sacrifice. It is an ambiguous touchstone in a dangerous world. It collides with the biggest events and issues of the last hundred years – the First and Second World Wars, millions of war-dead, pacifism, and remembrance. Ironically, it is also embroiled in the international ‘War on Terror’ through the billion-dollar trade in narcotics, trafficking the opium poppy and its derivatives.

The poppy’s story is as old as civilisation. Following its ancient origins, we glimpse a primordial world of sorcery, where Nature and humanity were joined imperceptibly by spirituality and ritual. On a 3,000-year-old statue from Minoan Crete, a ‘Poppy Goddess’ statue wears an opium-poppy headdress, and a dreamy expression, which evokes a supernatural encounter. Centuries later, classical Greek myth tells that poppies flowered along the banks of the River Lethe, which flowed to Hades, and from which the dead had to drink so as to forget their former existence in the world of the living.

Death and sleep and dreams are closely entwined with the opium poppy, as the Greek gods Hypnos (Sleep) and Morpheus (Dreams) call on opium to cast their spells. The association of the poppy with the anguish and suffering of war also appeared at this time in the works of Homer. At a banquet in Sparta, Helen eased the Trojan War grief of her guests by spiking their wine with honey and opium. From the beginning, the opium poppy was a civilised plant, whose euphoria masked the pain of everyday living, soothed painful memories of war, and eased the passage from life to death.

Corn poppy and opium poppy

The scarlet corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and purple-white opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) reveal their intimacy through a long relationship with war, not least because the ‘long sleep’ of death was so easily associated with opium narcosis, and because of the corn poppy’s ubiquity on the freshly churned fields of war.

After the Battle of Waterloo, the mass graves of Napoleon’s soldiers were rapidly smothered by scarlet poppies. A local myth soon arose that it was the blood of the dead which added lustre to the crimson sheen of the battlefield.

For the soldiers of the First World War, the corn poppy, the opium poppy, and conflict were blasted together with industrial force, and their symbolism fused. Personal experiences juxtaposed images of the crimson poppy and scenes of carnage on the battlefields.

Corn poppies were imagined as the spirits of the dead rising from the blood-drenched earth – ‘thrusting from the lips of craters, undaunted by the desolation, heedless of human fury and stupidity’ as the fighter-pilot Cecil Lewis observed. Captain Rowland Fielding described soldiers wildly rushing across a no-man’s-land ablaze with scarlet poppies, accompanied by a storm of rifle and machine-gun fire. Experiences such as these played on men’s imaginations, and were the basis for the poppy becoming a metaphor for the dead.


John McCrae, May 1915
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.

‘In Flanders Fields’

It was the Canadian soldier-surgeon John McCrae who crystallised these feelings in his 1915 poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. Crouching at the entrance to his dugout, just outside Ypres in Belgian Flanders, McCrae gazed on the small battlefield cemetery where he had just buried a close friend. From his grief he conjured a poem, immortalising the poppy in his opening stanza, ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow, / Between the crosses, row on row’.

The poem became the touchstone of emotion for the war generation, striking a chord with soldiers and public alike. Reprinted many times, it was used to raise money and morale for the war effort, luring more young men to an untimely death.

The corn poppy became the ‘Flanders Poppy’, an emblem for the souls of the dead, and a crimson palliative for those who had lost loved ones. Its ambiguous relationship with the opium poppy manifested itself in morphine, a powerful painkiller which made the physical agonies of war more bearable, and which was a derivative of opium.

‘In Flanders Fields’ established the corn poppy as the symbolic flower of the Great War, but did not guarantee its post-war emergence as an international symbol of commemoration for the English-speaking world. This final transformation to the Remembrance Poppy took place in New York in the days leading up to the Armistice of 11 November 1918. It was here that an unassuming middle-aged schoolteacher named Moina Michael had nothing less than a messianic spiritual conversion.

Moina Michael’s mission

Moina chanced on McCrae’s poem in a magazine, and imagined the voices of the dead clamouring for her to convert the scarlet flower into a sacred emblem of their sacrifice. She never married, and regarded the poppy as her ‘spirit child’, pledging her soul, she said, to ‘that crimson cup flower of Flanders, the red Poppy which caught the sacrificial blood of ten million men dying for the Peace of the World’.

Her eloquent appeals and passionate energy overcame numerous hurdles during the following years, until, in 1921, the poppy was adopted as the official remembrance flower of the United States. The ‘Buddy Poppy’, as it was soon re-christened, remains the national flower of war commemoration to this day, though most Americans would not recognise it.

But this was a story of two women, for Moina’s obsession was matched by Anna Guérin, an elegant French widow who championed the manufacturing of silken red poppies in the devastated areas of France, and sold them across the world to raise money for veterans and orphans of the Great War.

Rivalry between the two women was unspoken but keen. Anna’s early financial advantage was undermined when American veterans decided that their own disabled comrades should make poppies in the USA. Fashioned by the crippled hands of men with missing limbs, the Buddy Poppy tugged at the nation’s heart every Veterans Day.

The British Legion

Nothing daunted, Anna Guérin sealed the poppy’s international success by travelling to Canada, and her representatives to Australia and New Zealand, all of which adopted the commemorative flower. She visited London, too, where she convinced the British Legion to embrace the poppy. This victory was short-lived, however, as the Legion soon began making its own artificial flowers for their Poppy Day Appeal, where the red-cloth poppy on its wire attachment recalled for many a generation of youth sacrificed on the barbed wire of the Western Front.

In Britain, from 1921, buying a Remembrance Poppy directly supported the war-wounded who were employed in the British Legion’s newly established Poppy Factory. The beginnings were modest, with just five disabled servicemen in a small room above a shop off the Old Kent Road in south-east London. As poppy-wearing gathered momentum, the operation moved to Richmond in Surrey, and then, in 1933, to a purpose-built factory nearby, where it remains to this day. The symbolism of this arrangement is as poignant and appropriate today as it was at the time.

Nick Saunders

This is an extract from an article that appeared in issue 38 of Military History Monthly.

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