Poppies Become a Symbol for Fallen Soldiers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After Punch magazine published the unsigned poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915, the poppy, which figures as a major conceit in the poem, quickly became a symbol for the Allied war dead.

Summary of Event

The red poppy is internationally recognized as a symbol for fallen soldiers, an association that has its roots in World War I. The relationship between the poppy and remembering war dead is the direct result of the 1915 publication of a poem titled “In Flanders Fields” in the British magazine Punch. The poem, unsigned on its first publication, was written by a Canadian army medical officer named John McCrae, who was serving in the World War I campaign of the Ypres salient. "In Flanders Fields" (McCrae)[In Flanders Fields] Poppies as symbol for war dead World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];literature [kw]Poppies Become a Symbol for Fallen Soldiers (Dec. 8, 1915) [kw]Soldiers, Poppies Become a Symbol for Fallen (Dec. 8, 1915) "In Flanders Fields" (McCrae)[In Flanders Fields] Poppies as symbol for war dead World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];literature [g]England;Dec. 8, 1915: Poppies Become a Symbol for Fallen Soldiers[03880] [c]Literature;Dec. 8, 1915: Poppies Become a Symbol for Fallen Soldiers[03880] [c]World War I;Dec. 8, 1915: Poppies Become a Symbol for Fallen Soldiers[03880] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 8, 1915: Poppies Become a Symbol for Fallen Soldiers[03880] McCrae, John Helmer, Alexis Michael, Moina Belle

In April, 1915, McCrae was assigned as a brigade surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Forces Artillery, which was stationed in the trenches in an area near Ypres, Belgium, commonly known as Flanders. Much of the bloodiest fighting of World War I took place in that area. McCrae’s brigade was involved in combat in the Second Battle of Ypres, Ypres, Second Battle of (1915) during which the German forces deployed chlorine gas against the Allied troops in an effort to break the ongoing stalemate. In the trenches, McCrae tended to wounded soldiers and was constantly surrounded by the dead and dying. Among these soldiers was a close friend and former student of McCrae, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who was killed in battle by a direct hit from an eight-inch German shell.

On May 3, 1915, the First Brigade laid Helmer to rest in the burial ground known at the time as the Essex Farm British Military Cemetery. No chaplain was present, so McCrae conducted a simple graveside service for his fallen friend. Taking inspiration from the sight of Helmer’s makeshift grave and the others in the cemetery, McCrae composed the poem that soon became famous. On and around the graves of the fallen soldiers, which were marked by simple wooden crosses, vibrant red wild poppies had begun to bloom; McCrae captured this image in the poem.

After he completed the poem, McCrae was somewhat dissatisfied and discarded it, but a fellow officer retrieved it. McCrae sent the poem to the English magazine The Spectator, which rejected it, but Punch magazine published it on December 8, 1915. McCrae later contracted pneumonia while posted to a Canadian military hospital in Boulogne, France, and died on January 28, 1918, after developing meningitis.

On November 9, 1918, two days before the armistice that ended World War I, Moina Belle Michael, who was working as social secretary for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Overseas Headquarters in New York City, came across the poem in a magazine and, although she had read it many times before, reread it and found herself greatly affected by it. She was inspired to write her own poem in response, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” and she vowed always to wear a red silk poppy as a symbol of tribute to the war dead and surviving veterans. Her campaign to encourage others to do so also began that same day, when three delegates to the Twenty-fifth Conference of the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries asked her to accept a ten-dollar check in appreciation of her efforts to brighten up the headquarters office with the red flower. Michael showed both McCrae’s poem and her own to the delegates, and they took the poems back to the conference and shared them with the others in attendance. Michael was then invited to discuss the poems and her poppy campaign at the conference.

With the money the delegates had given her, Michael bought twenty-five red silk poppies, and when she returned to the headquarters office after the conference, she distributed the flowers to delegates who accosted her with requests for poppies to wear. This was the first official sale of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy. Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy Several of those in attendance, most notably the French secretary Anna Guérin, Guérin, Anna took this idea back to their home countries and began similar successful campaigns for the poppy to symbolize remembrance of those lost in the war. Michael devoted the rest of her life to this cause, and by the time of her death in 1944, the poppy campaign had raised nearly two hundred million dollars for veterans and their families in the United States and England.

Significance

Thanks to McCrae’s poem and Michael’s campaign, the poppy became a universal symbol for war remembrance. Through the efforts of Michael and her counterparts in other countries, the poppy appeal spread throughout the United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, Australia, and more than fifty other nations. In the United States and Great Britain, silk poppies made by disabled veterans are sold to the public, and the profits are channeled to programs that provide relief and rehabilitation for veterans and their dependents.

King George V of the United Kingdom designated November 11 as Armistice Day in 1919, and with that began the tradition of laying poppy wreaths at national graveside ceremonies. The first annual poppy appeal was held in Britain on November 11, 1921, by the Royal British Legion, a tradition that has continued into the twenty-first century. The Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors League first sold poppies on Armistice Day in 1921.

In the United States, the first organized sale of poppies took place in 1921 when the Franco-American Children’s League sold poppies made by children in French orphanages for the benefit of children in the war-devastated areas of France and Belgium. When the Franco-American Children’s League was dissolved early in 1922, Anna Guérin contacted the Veterans of Foreign Wars Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States regarding selling poppies made in France. The VFW supported the idea and conducted a poppy sale that year. The following year, the VFW decided to sell poppies made by disabled and needy American veterans, and a factory was established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to make flowers named Buddy Poppies by the VFW. Later, Buddy Poppies were assembled by disabled and aging veterans in Veterans Administration hospitals and domiciliaries across the United States.

The VFW adopted the poppy as the organization’s official memorial flower in 1922. In October, 1922, the American Legion also adopted the poppy as its official flower. "In Flanders Fields" (McCrae)[In Flanders Fields] Poppies as symbol for war dead World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];literature

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beckett, I. F. W. Ypres: The First Battle, 1914. Harlow, England: Pearson, 2004. Provides a detailed account of the Flanders campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, Ian. “The Larks Still Singing.” Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 1998, 6. Contains brief biographical information on John McCrae and his role in the rise of the Armistice Day celebration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graves, Dianne. A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae. Staplehurst, England: Spellmount, 1997. Very thorough biography pays special attention to McCrae’s medical career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Groom, Winston. A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918—Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front. New York: Grove Press, 2002. Tells the story of the Flanders campaign and provides context for the poem “In Flanders Fields.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnston, Penelope. “The Life of Dr. John McCrae.” Medical Post 34, no. 38 (November 10, 1998): 34. Presents a succinct biography of McCrae and outlines his many accomplishments in the medical profession.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCrae, John. “In Flanders Fields.” In In Flanders Fields: Poetry of the First World War, edited by George Walter. New York: Allen Lane, 2004. A recent reprinting of the poem that inspired the poppy campaign, within a volume that provides the context of other World War I-era poetry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Michael, Moina Belle. The Miracle Flower: The Story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy. Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1941. Autobiography of the woman responsible for launching the memorial poppy campaign. Describes her work in the war, her rationale for participating in the poppy campaign, and the logistics of putting it together.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prescott, John F. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae. Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills Press, 1985. Biography covers McCrae’s military career.

World War I

Germany Uses Poison Gas Against Allied Troops

Formation of the American Legion

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