Red Poppies Commemorate Great War, Honor All Fallen
by U.S. Marine Corps Laurie Pearson
November 17, 2020
The iconic red poppies are back and being offered as a symbol of
remembrance and commemoration of World War I ... and all fallen
military service members.
The humble Red Poppy has come to mean remembering those who gave their lives in wars Americans have fought in.
The simple poem "In Flanders Field" inspired the use of this
flower as a symbol of support and remembrance. (U.S.
Marine Corps photo by Laurie Pearson)
A century ago, “the war to end all
wars” raged throughout Europe. It was a war that racked up nearly 38
million casualties, including upwards of 8.5 million deaths. From
1914 to 1918, World War I took a greater human toll than any
previous conflict. The Great War, as it was then known, also ravaged
the landscape of Western Europe, where most of the fiercest fighting
Across northern France and Flanders, in northern
Belgium, the brutal clashes between Allied and Central Powers
soldiers tore up fields and forests, tearing up trees and plants and
wreaking havoc on the soil beneath.
It was from these
devastated landscapes of the battlefields that something surprising
and striking took place. Bright red blooms began to appear.
“They had been burying the bodies of military men, and a few women,
as they came off the battlefield, as quickly as possible,” explained
retired Marine Corps Master Sergeant William Ponder, president of
Veterans of Foreign Wars post 12039, out of Victorville, California.
“They were dying so fast, and they began burying them in a place
called Flanders Hill. They called it ‘planting the bodies.’ They
were buried with simple little crosses.”
Then in the warm
early spring of 1915, the bright red poppies began peeking through
the battle-scarred land: Papaver rhoeas, known variously as the
Flanders poppy, corn poppy, red poppy and corn rose.
poppies grow throughout the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe
and is native to the Mediterranean region. Its seeds need light to
grow, so when they’re buried in the earth, they can lay dormant for
80 years or even longer by some accounts, without blooming. Once
soil is disturbed and the seeds come to light, poppies nobody knew
existed can then bloom.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a
noted Canadian physician before the war, served with Canada’s First
Brigade Artillery as a surgeon at a field hospital in Belgium. He
worked within sight of poppies blooming across old battlefields and
fresh graves. McCrae tended to the wounded and got a firsthand look
at the carnage of that clash, in which the Germans unleashed lethal
chlorine gas for the first time in the war adding greatly to the
number of deaths, to include a friend of McCrae’s, Lt. Alexis Helmer.
Struck by the sight of bright red blooms on broken ground,
McCrae wrote a poem, “In Flanders Field,” in which he channeled the
voice of the fallen soldiers buried under those bright red poppies.
Published in Punch magazine in late 1915, the poem has been used at
countless memorial ceremonies, and has become one of the most famous
works of art to emerge from the Great War. Its fame had spread far
and wide by the time McCrae himself died, from pneumonia and
meningitis, in January 1918.
Across the Atlantic, a woman
named Moina Michael read “In Flanders Field” in the pages of Ladies’
Home Journal that November, just two days before the armistice. She
was a professor at the University of Georgia at the time the war
broke out. Michael had taken a leave of absence to volunteer at the
New York headquarters of the Young Women’s Christian Association,
which trained and sponsored workers overseas. Inspired by McCrae’s
verses, Michael wrote her own poem in response, which she called “We
Shall Keep Faith.”
As a sign of this faith, and a remembrance
of the sacrifices of Flanders Field, Michael vowed to always wear a
red poppy; she found an initial batch of fabric blooms for herself
and her colleagues at a department store. After the war ended, she
returned to the university town of Athens, and came up with the idea
of making and selling red silk poppies to raise money to support
Michael’s campaign to create a national
symbol for remembrance—a poppy in the colors of the Allied nations’
flags entwined around a victory torch—didn’t get very far at first.
In mid-1920, however, she managed to get Georgia’s branch of the
American Legion, to adopt the poppy (minus the torch) as its symbol.
Soon after that, the National American Legion voted to use the poppy
as the official U.S. national emblem of remembrance when its members
convened in Cleveland in September 1920.
A Frenchwoman named
Anna Guérin was a champion of the red poppy symbology and as such
was invited to the American Legion convention to speak about her
idea for an “Inter-Allied Poppy Day.” Madame Guérin helped convince
the Legion members to adopt the poppy as their symbol, and to join
her by celebrating National Poppy Day in the United States the
Nations, a century after World War I ended,
millions of people in the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Belgium,
Australia and New Zealand don the red flowers every November 11,
known as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day, to commemorate the
anniversary of the 1918 Armistice.
In the United States, the
tradition has developed a little differently. Americans don’t
typically wear poppies on November 11, Veterans Day, which honors
all living veterans. Instead, they typically wear the symbolic red
flower on Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, to commemorate the
sacrifice of so many men and women who have given their lives
fighting for their country. Protocols do allow, though, for the red
poppies to be worn at any time, in somber reverence for those lost
Regardless of the time of year, or holiday
celebrated, the red poppies are an ongoing visual representation of
respect and appreciation for those who have served.
and I have 14 family members who have served in every war and
conflict from WW1 (The Great War) to present day,” said Martin
Mills, Range Operations officer aboard MCLB Barstow. “Our family has
severed in all four branches of the military: Army, Air Force, Navy,
Marines (and the Coast Guard). I feel remembrance is important in a
few ways such as honoring those who have served and remembering
those who have died so that our great nation can keep the freedoms
we cherish. May we never forget.”
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