It was during the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th Century that it was first noticed how the distinctive red scarlet corn poppy flowers can still thrive in the churned up earth of a battlefield. And in late 1914, in the otherwise scarred, barren fields of Northern France and Flanders, this red poppy dominated.
However, whilst the poppy’s natural fortitude was known prior to the Great War, it only became popularly associated with the fallen soldier when, in 1915, after losing a friend in Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was inspired by the sight of them growing in the battlefields to write the poem ‘In Flanders Fields‘.
Inspired by McCrae’s poem, American academic Moina Michael made and sold red silk poppies, which were brought to England by a French woman, Anna Guérin. In 1921 the flower was adopted by The Royal British Legion as the symbol for the Poppy Appeal, which raises money to assist those serving in the British Armed Forces, and the families of men and women killed or wounded in battle. In 1921, the British Legion ordered 9 million of Michael and Guerin’s poppies, and on the 11th November of that year they sold every single one, raising over £106,000.
In 1922, Major George Howson set up a factory to make paper poppies, employing disabled ex-Servicemen. Later, in 1926, in order to make sure enough poppies were produced to sell across the whole of Britain, Earl Haig’s wife established the ‘Lady Haig Poppy Factory’ in Scotland. Over 5 million Scottish poppies (which have four petals and no leaf, unlike poppies in the rest of the UK), and they are still made this way in her factory today.
Worn on Armistice Day, now known as Remembrance Sunday, and on 11th November itself, red poppies are a lasting symbol of respect and gratitude to those who gave their lives during the conflicts of the past, the present and the future.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.