A Brief History of the Poppy
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.
– John McCrae, In Flanders Fields, 1915
This series of posts will explore the history of the poppy and its role in the commemoration of the victims of the First World War in Britain over the past century, assessing how the poppy as a symbol has altered, along with its role in the development of the British national identity.
This first post will briefly detail the historic attitudes to ex-servicemen in Britain, the adoption and manufacturing of the poppy as an intrinsic component of remembrance, and the unique position it occupies in British commemorative practices.
John McCrae, 1872-1918
. . .
Prior to the First World War, ex-servicemen made up the majority of those who received casual wards as part of the Poor Law in Britain. Returning from service, these men were either too old to learn a new trade, or were wounded or sick from their years in the army, and were regarded by the British public with fear and scorn. This image of the average soldier was altered positively in the later decades of the 19th Century, in part due to various reforms (for example shortening the length of service, allowing young men to return to society rather than old), the establishment of organisations dedicated to helping the wounded and sick find work, and more romanticised images of soldiers in popular culture.
The government did attempt to help in this endeavour, but largely the provision of welfare for ex-servicemen came from private establishments, and the money raised by these establishments came mainly from the wealthy upper classes; it seemed a strange idea that the working classes would give to the charities that more often than not were directed at improving their own welfare. The working classes engaged more often in charity of an informal sense, helping neighbours and their more immediate community, rather than donating money to a national cause.
Following the Boer War at the turn of the 20th Century, the perennial problem of ‘the old soldier’ had been addressed, but was far from being solved. In 1909, ex-servicemen still made up the majority of recipients of the Poor Law casual wards, and the trend of support coming from private establishments rather than the government continued through and beyond the First World War.
An illustration of injured British soldiers during the Boer War of 1899-1902. Disabled servicemen returning to Britain would have relied on charities to provide financial support, rather than the government.
. . .
Following the end of the First World War, the poppy was first adopted by the American Legion as their emblem, having been persuaded to do so by humanitarian Moina Michael, who in turn had been inspired by John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields.
Writing his poem in 1915, it can be assumed that McCrae, a Canadian medical officer serving on the Western Front, would have been unaware of the significant impact In Flanders Fields would have on the legacy of First World War remembrance. McCrae died of pneumonia in January 1918, so did not live to see the implementation of the poppy, the first flower that grew in the churned soil of the Flanders region during the war, as the symbol of the commemoration of the war dead that remains to this day.
The poppy was later adopted by the British Legion, which had been founded in 1921 as both a fundraising incentive and an attempt to bring together officers and men into a single, identifiable body following the war. The British Legion ordered 1.5 million artificial poppies to be sold on 11th November, 1921. These poppies were manufactured by widows and orphans living in Northern France, which had been devastated by the 4 year conflict.
When the poppy appeal was first launched in Britain, the aforementioned difference in charitable donations between classes was reflected. Two types of poppy were sold, cotton and silk, with the former priced at 3d for the purchase by lower classes, and the latter expected to be bought by the wealthier members of society with a price of sale to be 1s or more.
£106,000 was raised by the first Poppy Appeal, and it was decided that for the following year, 1922, the poppies on sale would be manufactured in Britain rather than imported from France. The British Legion established its own means of production through the use of Major George Howson MC and Major Jack Cohen’s Disabled Society charity, giving them a grant of £2,000 to manufacture the poppies for that year’s Armistice Day. The money was used to open the Poppy Factory, which employed disabled veterans of the First World War. Initially employing 5 disabled ex-servicemen, this number increased over the next decade, with the funds raised from the sale of these poppies being used to financially support ex-servicemen and the families of the bereaved. Money raised at a local level was sent to the British Legion and then redistributed back according to an area’s level of need.
Major George Arthur Howson MC, founder of the British Legion Poppy Factory, pictured here with the factory’s initial 5 workers.
The creation of the Poppy Factory only strengthened the appeal of the purchase of a poppy; there were now tangible links between the buying of a poppy and directly supporting men who had been injured in the war, in this case being those men employed as the makers of the poppies. Buying a poppy was not only a gesture of remembrance, it was an open show of support for those who had suffered as a result of the First World War.
By the late 1920s, the wearing of the poppy on Armistice Day had become universally commonplace across Britain, with millions produced each year at the Poppy Factory, whilst the laying of poppy wreaths at sites of commemoration had also grown in popularity. Another example of the versatility of the poppy in producing commemorative gestures came in 1928 when the first Field of Remembrance was created by Howson and the disabled ex-servicemen of the Poppy Factory, who planted poppies on the grounds of St Margaret’s Church in Westminster, starting a tradition that continues to this day.
The purchase of individual poppies and wreaths would be both a fitting tribute to the dead and a show of support to the war’s survivors by providing them with much needed financial support. 11th November was no longer a day solely focused on the dead; now, it was also an event with which to remember the living, and the poppy had become the tangible representation of this remembrance – an acknowledgement of those whose loved ones did not come home, and those who may have survived the trenches, but were by no means unscathed.