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By Dr Stephen Clarke
The use of the red poppy – the Flanders’ Poppy – as a symbol of remembrance derives from the fact that the poppy was the first plant to re-emerge from the churned up soil of soldiers’ graves during the First World War.
It was a poem by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer, which began the process by which the Flanders’ Poppy became immortalised worldwide as the symbol of remembrance.
The inspiration for the poem had been the burial of a fellow officer during the Second Battle of Ypres in early May 1915. McCrae's verses, which had been scribbled in pencil on a page torn from his despatch book, were sent anonymously by a fellow officer to the English magazine, Punch, which published them under the title In Flanders Fields on 8 December 1915. Subsequently, the poem was published around the world to much acclaim and is one of the most memorable and moving poems of the Great War.
Three years later, McCrae himself died of pneumonia at Wimereux near Boulogne, France, on 28 January 1918. On his deathbed, McCrae reportedly lay down the challenge:
“Tell them this, if ye break faith with us who die,
we shall not sleep.”
Among the many people moved by McCrae’s poem a YMCA canteen worker in New York, Miss Moina Michael (1869-1944), who, two days before the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, wrote a reply entitled ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’:
“We Shall Keep the Faith”
Oh! You who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet-to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With all who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valour led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy red
We wear in honour of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
Michael also originated the idea of the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance.
Origins of the Memorial Poppy
The idea for the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy, Moina Michael recalled in her 1941 book The Miracle Flower, came to her while working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ Headquarters on a Saturday morning, 9 November 1918. The Twenty-Fifth Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries was in progress. During a lull in proceedings Moina glanced through a copy of the November Ladies Home Journal and came across McCrae’s poem re-titled “We Shall Not Sleep”. The last few lines transfixed her:
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.
Moina Michael hereafter made a personal pledge to ‘keep the faith’ and vowed always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a symbol of remembrance. Compelled to make a note of this pledge she hastily scribbled her response, entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith”, on the back of a used envelope.
When the Conference delegates gave Moina a gift of ten dollars in appreciation of her assistance, she went to a New York department store and purchased 25 artificial red poppies and, pinning one on her own collar, distributed the remainder to the YMCA secretaries with an explanation of her motivation. She viewed this act as the first group distribution of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy.
Moina Michael hereafter tirelessly campaigned to get the poppy adopted as a national symbol of remembrance. In September 1920 the American Legion adopted the Poppy as such at its annual Convention. Attending that Convention was a French woman who was about to promote the poppy — as a symbol of remembrance — throughout the world.
International Symbol of Remembrance
Madame E. Guérin, conceived the idea of widows manufacturing artificial poppies in the devastated areas of Northern France which then could be sold by veterans’ organisations worldwide for their own veterans and dependants as well as the benefit of destitute French children. Throughout 1920-21, Guérin and her representatives approached veteran organisations’ in the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and urged them to adopt the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.
It was as a result of the efforts of Michael and Guérin — both of whom became known endearingly as the “Poppy Lady” — that the poppy became an international symbol of remembrance.
Dr Stephen Clarke is the Official Historian and Commemorations Officer for the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association.
Dianne Graves, A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae (London: Spellmount, 1997)
Moina Michael, The Miracle Flower: The Story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy (Philadelphia: Dorrance & Co., 1941)