Across the Country every Memorial Day weekend or thereabout, Americans will be offered a little paper flower when they enter many of their favorite grocery or department stores. Some will kindly accept them and place a small donation in the can sitting on the table, few, however, will know the symbolism and the history of the Poppy.
The tradition of poppy sales began when a lady named Moina Michael found a poem by a Canadian Officer, Lt. Col. John McCrae in a magazine she was reading while working in New York for the YMCA's Overseas War Secretary's headquarters at its annual conference in 1918. The words of the poem are:
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.
--Lt. Col. John McCrae
The words of this poem were so moving to her that she decided to always wear a poppy in remembrance of those who died. She used $10.00 ($151.92 in 2012 USD) that she was paid by conference delegates to buy 25 silk poppies. She pinned one to her own coat while giving the rest to delegates. This is regarded as the first poppy sale. Her personal campaign to have the poppy be a national remembrance symbol then began.
In 1920, the American Legion embraced the symbolism. A French Lady, Madame E Guerin, saw the poppies as a way to raise money for French children in the areas of that country that been decimated by WWI. With the aid of French Widows in America, who manufactured the poppies, Mme Guerin was able to sell millions of poppies and expanded her efforts to London the following year.
In the UK, Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who was a senior commander in WWI and one of the founders of the Royal British Legion, was a champion for the poppy cause. Other veteran's organizations in the commonwealth countries likewise chose to honor the fallen with poppies.
The association of poppies with war, however, did not begin with these events. Such an association had existed since the Napoleonic era. An account was made at that time was the fields in the area of Flanders, France had been desolate prior to fighting, but were carpeted by blood-red poppies following the battle.
In the years leading up to WWI, poppies were sparse in the fields in Flanders . During the war the chalky soil of the fields were littered with lime-filled rubble, which allowed the poppies to thrive again. After the war the lime from the rubble was absorbed and the poppy growth dissipated.
It was during the explosion of poppies in the middle of WWI that Lt. Col. McCrae saw the fields and penned his famous poem. His poem represents not only the dead of that war, but those who have ever died in combat.
Today Legions from around the world use poppies to remember the fallen and to raise funds to support related causes, but many of the citizens blessed by those sacrifices are no longer aware of the symbolism. Let us share with our friends and neighbors what the poppy means, and let us wear them proudly in honor of our brothers and sisters who have paid the ultimate price.