The Friday before Memorial Day is designated as National Poppy Day and this year it falls on May 27th. If you’ve ever been out and about on Memorial Day weekend, most likely you’ve seen members of the American Legion at businesses selling small, red poppies that you can tuck in a buttonhole or wear on a ball cap. The poppies are sold as a fund raiser for the Legion and your donation goes to help support the financial and medical needs of both active duty and veteran service members. But do you know how this tradition came about and how it became associated with Memorial Day?
The tradition dates back to World War I. As the war took it’s toll on the battlefields of Europe, more than 8.5 million men died in battle, were injured, or passed away from disease. Western Europe was the theater where some of the fiercest fighting took place often tearing up the landscape. During the spring of 1915, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian field surgeon stationed in Flanders, Belgium was struck by the sight of the red blooms as they peeked through the ravaged countryside shortly after the Battle of Ypres during which a friend of his had been killed. Inspired by their bright colors and tenacity, having witnessed the carnage from the war, he penned the poem entitled, “In Flanders Fields,” which became one of the most famous literary pieces to emerge from the war. Originally published in Punch magazine in 1915, it went on to be one of the most quoted poems used at memorial ceremonies at that time.
In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae
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.
Papaver rhoeas, or Flanders poppy is actually classified as a weed which may explain why it survived to bloom so prolifically on the battlefields.
In November of 1915, Ladies Home Journal published the poem and in the United States, a professor from the University of Georgia named Moina Michael read it and was touched by the history behind it. In response she wrote her own poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith” and as a sign of this faith she committed to always wearing a red poppy. Although she had taken a leave of absence during the war from her teaching position to volunteer at the YWCA in New York in order to help train workers that were heading overseas, she returned to Georgia afterwards and began to craft her own red fabric poppies. By the mid 1920’s she had gained the attention of the American Legion and convinced them to adopt the poppy as their symbol. They were then instrumental in having the poppy named as the official US national emblem of remembrance.
Meanwhile, back in France, a woman named Anna Guerin had launched her own campaign by creating a similar National Poppy Day and making and selling, fabric poppies to raise funds to support war veterans. Invited to speak at the American Legion convention about her efforts, by November 1921 she had expanded her reach into England. The Poppy Factory was established in Richmond, England the following year by Major George Howson and employed disabled servicemen to make the poppies.
The practice of wearing red poppies in remembrance caught on and soon many nations followed. In Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand they are typically they are worn on November 11th which is their Remembrance or Armistice Day- the day on which they commemorate the signing of the armistice of 1918 that ended WWI. In the United States, we wear the poppies on Memorial Day- the last Monday in May at which time we honor those that sacrificed their lives in military service. Veterans Day in the United States, celebrated on November 11th, honors all living veterans.
The Poppy Factory now has two branches, one in Richmond, England, and another in Edinburgh, Scotland, and they produce as many as 45 million poppies annually. So when you see a Legionaire this weekend, purchase a poppy knowing how it all came about. Or better yet, buy a poppy to plant in your garden this summer. Each time you see it’s bright red bloom waving in the wind, you’ll be reminded of Flanders Fields and those that we honor on Memorial Day.