Lest we forget - the history of the remembrance poppy
We owe the ubiquity of the poppy in the weeks leading up to 11 November to two women: Moina Michael, and Anna Guérin.
Moina Michael was an American woman working for the YMCA overseas war secretary’s headquarters in New York during the period of the First World War. Two days before the armistice she was struck by the words of Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”. Although its first two lines are now most famous,
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
It was the poem’s last two lines which struck a chord with Michael:
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Writing later in her memoir The Miracle Flower, Moina Michael said these lines had an almost spiritual effect upon her, and that she vowed to herself in that moment to keep the faith with all those who had died, and to wear a poppy as a sign of remembrance.
Moina Michael began a personal campaign to have the poppy accepted as a national memorial symbol. During the course of her endeavours, she came to realise that there was a need not only to honour those who had not returned from the war, but also a pressing need not to forget those who had returned with physical and mental scars. These two goals came to fruition when the poppy was adopted by the American Legion in 1920.
If Moina Michael was the inspiration behind the poppy as an emblem of remembrance, it was French woman Anna Guérin who seized upon the fundraising possibilities of the poppy, and who exported the emblem to the other Allied countries.
Guérin, who worked for the French arm of the YMCA, was present at the American Legion convention of 1920, and was struck by the concept of the memorial poppy. Her experience of the aftermaths of war at home in France propelled her towards the decision to make and sell artificial poppies. She determined that monies raised would assist in the restoration of areas of France decimated by the war, and to assist the nation’s many war orphans.
Over the ensuing years, Guérin gradually exported the fund-raising poppy to the other Allied nations. In 1921, she sent French women to sell poppies in Britain, and visited Field Marshal Douglas Haig (founder and director of the British Legion) in person to persuade him to adopt the poppy as the Legion’s emblem.
The first British Legion poppy appeal began in the run-up to 11 November 1921, and its proceeds went to ex-servicemen in need of welfare and support. By 1922, a poppy factory was established on the Old Kent Road, where disabled ex-servicemen were employed to make poppies to meet the growing need. Today, around 40 million poppies are made and sold every year.
Guérin successfully exported the poppy to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; but in her home country of France, Armistice Day is commemorated by the wearing of blue cornflowers (bleuets), which recall the blue uniforms which French soldiers wore, and which like the poppies, were flowers which sprang, as new signs of life, from the ravages of the Flanders battlefields.
Nicola Cooper, Senior Lecturer in Modern History