The Flanders Poppy
The Flanders poppy has long been a part of Remembrance Day, the ritual that marks the Armistice of 11 November 1918, and is also increasingly being used as part of ANZAC Day observances. The French word ‘Armistice’ means an agreement to end fighting, and comes from the Latin ‘arma’ meaning ‘arms’ and ‘stitium’ meaning “stoppage”.
During the First World War, red poppies were among the first plants to spring up in the devastated battlefields of northern France and Belgium. In soldiers’ folklore, the vivid red of the poppy came from the blood of their fallen comrades soaking the ground.
This same poppy also flowers in Turkey in early spring - as it did in April 1915 when the ANZACs landed at Gallipoli. According to Australia’s official war historian C.E.W.Bean, a valley south of ANZAC beach got its name Poppy Valley “from the field of brilliant red poppies near its mouth”.
The sight of poppies on the battlefield at Ypres in 1915 moved Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae to write the poem ‘In Flanders fields’.
Colonel McCrae had served as a gunner in the Boer War, but went to France in World War One as a medical Officer with the first Canadian Contingent.
At the second battle of Ypres in 1915, when in charge of a small firstaid post, he wrote in pencil on a page torn from his notebook:
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.
The verses were apparently sent anonymously to the English magazine, Punch, which published them under the title, ‘In Flanders’ Fields’. Colonel McCrae died while on active duty in May 1918. His volume of poetry,’ In Flanders’ Fields and Other Poems’, was published in 1919.
A young American teacher who worked for the YMCA, Moina Michael, wrote a poem after reading ‘In Flanders’ Fields’ in 1918. Miss Michael’s poem is called ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’. She is credited with being the first to wear a poppy as a symbol of remembrance.
At a meeting of YMCA secretaries from other countries, held in November 1918, she talked about the poem and her poppies. Anna Guérin, the French YMCA secretary, took the idea further by selling poppies to raise money for widows, orphans, and needy veterans and their families.
The poppy soon became widely accepted throughout the allied nations as the flower of remembrance to be worn on Armistice Day (now Remembrance Day). The Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League (the forerunner to the RSL) first sold poppies for Armistice Day in 1921. For this drive, the League imported one million silk poppies, made in French orphanages. Each poppy was sold for a shilling: five pence was donated to a charity for French children, six pence went to the League’s own welfare work, and one penny went to the League’s national coffers. Today the RSL continues to sell poppies for Remembrance Day to raise funds for its welfare work.
Here are a few pictures of poppies. Perhaps you would like to draw a few stems and place them in a spot where others can see them on ANZAC Day. Perhaps on a window sill, on your front gate, or at your town’s memorial?
Lest we forget.