The Poppy as a Symbol of Remembrance


Why has the poppy become a symbol of death, renewal and life?


The answer is half history, half biology.  Known as Papaver rhoeas, the common or “corn” poppy grows throughout the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe and is native to the Mediterranean region.  The seeds of the flower can remain dormant in the soil for decades, but once the ground is disturbed and the seeds come to light, they will bloom spectacularly.


During World War I, this remarkable phenomenon took place on the battlefields of Europe.  In Belgium, which was the location of the Western Front in its Flanders provinces, the soil was torn up by miles of trenches and pocked by bomb craters and artillery fire.  The Battle of Ypres, which took place in a part of Flanders known as Flanders Fields, was especially deadly and it took a heavy toll on the environment, too. Many hundreds of thousands of soldiers breathed their last on soil laid bare and churned up by the devastation of war.


After the second battle of Ypres in May 1915, a Canadian doctor named Lt. Col. John McCrae noticed red poppies bloom in a Flanders Fields mass cemetery.  It inspired him to write a poem, In Flanders Fields, which muses on the vitality of the red poppies and encourages people to take up the torch in honor of their fallen countrymen.  First published in the London-based magazine Punch in December

1915, it went on to become WWI’s most recognized poem and a powerful recruiting tool in Great Britain as well as the United States. Red poppies began to appear on posters encouraging people to sign up for the army or to buy war bonds, and in ceremonies honoring the war dead.


In 1918, a volunteer with the American YWCA named Moina Michael was so inspired by the poem that she vowed to always wear a red poppy, and campaigned to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol of remembrance.  The National American Legion adopted it in 1920; the following year, the Royal British Legion adopted the symbol.  Today, remembrance poppies are mostly used in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to commemorate their servicemen and women killed in all conflicts.


Poppies continue to dot the places that were scarred by World War I – a blooming symbol of a bloody conflict that changed the world forever.




(Submitted by Liess van der Linden-Brusse - July 9, 2018)


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