In Flanders Fields – the Story of the Poppy

Wednesday 7 November 2018          by Heather Woodward

Fittingly, at Remembrance tide, Heather spoke of the poppy as a symbol of conflict, loss, and remembrance, the common (or corn or field) poppy and opium poppy referred to here being just two of some 250 varieties of the flower.

Poppies enjoy a short life, reflective of that of the lives lost in battle, and it was observed, after Waterloo in 1815, that the ground was red with poppies, suggestive of the blood spilt on that battlefield. Indeed, poppies flourish where there is both sunshine and disturbed soil, clearly accounting for their proliferation in the fields of northern France and Flanders.

Ironically, the opium poppy has been used by the military as an opiate in healing the traumas of war (laudanum has been employed by the Royal Navy for a long time), yet those men so healed are then returned to the fight, where they are once more subject to wounding, maiming, and death. Similarly, profits from the poppy trade have been utilised for the acquisition of weapons at the same time as the opiate seeks to alleviate the suffering caused by those weapons.

Being simple to draw and paint, poppies have been prominent in art and architecture, while Keats noted “sound asleep, drows’d with the fume of poppies”, Burns observed that “poppies are like pleasures spread: you seize the flower, its bloom is shed”, and Francis Thompson reflected that “summer set lip to earth’s bosom here, and left the flushed print in a poppy there”. Modern writer, Dr Nicholas Saunders, speaks of endless columns replenished, cut down, replaced, and flowering again.

Despite the desecration on a colossal scale at The Somme, poppies were in profusion, basking in the sun: Fred Hodges (1899-2002), a soldier of the Great War, picked a bunch of poppies, which he placed in a metal cup attached to his rifle (for the firing of a grenade), acutely conscious of their growing amidst all the manmade destruction, Nature just getting on with life with her bank of deep red poppies. [Sensibly, Hodges removed his poppies from the cup before his sergeant saw them].

At Essex Farm on 2 May 1915, military doctor Lt-Col. John McCrea (1872-1918) recited some words, in darkness, at a fellow officer’s funeral, then commenced “In Flanders Fields” the next day. The vast majority of deaths in the Great War were not of experienced soldiers, but youths and young men, although McCrea died of illness at the age of 46, buried at Wimereux on the French coast, escorted by his horse, Bonfire.

The American professor, Moina Michael, made artificial poppies, with the exhortation “and now the torch and poppy red wear in honour of our dead”, and Mme Anne Guérin (The Poppy Lady of France), actually a Belgian, did likewise to help support needy veteran soldiers and their families.

The pre-war soil in Belgium had not been particularly good, but the blood, bones, and nitrogen (from the shells) caused poppies to flourish in Flanders fields, thus providing us with the perfect flower to symbolise remembrance.

Eye catching and effective, the poppy quickly became synonymous with remembrance, although the French decided upon the cornflower (le bleuet), based on the shade of the uniforms worn by their poilus. Curiously, poppies were initially sold [nowadays, they are offered in return for a donation], the material being cloth or silk,  prices varying from 1d to a half-crown, dependent upon one’s social status (e.g., a child, working-class person, member of the gentry.)

In Britain, a National Day of Remembrance was held on 11 November 1921, at a cenotaph constructed of cardboard, prior to the erection of the permanent Cenotaph in Whitehall. Remembrance was, and is, seen as an act of solidarity, not an option, rather a moral duty, Remembrance Sunday now being the nearest Sunday to Armistice Day (11 November, the date, in 1918, when the guns fell silent and the fighting ceased).

On 30 May 1927, the American flyer, Charles Lindbergh, flew over a US cemetery, dropping poppies: since that time, the last Monday in May is observed, in the USA, as Memorial Day, whereas 11 November is known there as Veterans’ Day.

In Belgium, the last post has been played inside the Menin Gate, Ypres, at 8 o’clock each evening for 90 years, solemnly and reflectively, recalling the cost of the freedoms which we have enjoyed as a result of the sacrifice made on those French and Belgian fields between 1914 and 1918.

The Royal British Legion, the de facto custodian of remembrance, arranges the annual  Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, where, at the end of the event, a million poppies are floated down from the ceiling, representing the number of British and Empire war dead of the Great War.

Heather demonstrated, eloquently, that in November 2018, certainly, there is much recognition, in the public conscience, of the sacrifice made during more than four terrible years of war on an industrial scale, by our forebears one hundred ago. We therefore wear the poppy with pride, reverence, and solemnity, lest we forget.

Stefan Gatward