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As we approach Remembrance Day, that important anniversary on which we reflect on the great sacrifices of previous generations, it is interesting to look at the history behind its key symbol – the poppy. Why do we wear it, and how did this tradition come about?

The First World War was an earth-shattering global catastrophe that marked the end of the optimism of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It was this “Great War” which first introduced the use of the red poppy (the papaver rhoeas) for the purpose of remembrance.

No Man's Land

No Man’s Land

No Man’s Land, a zone dividing the trenches of opposing forces, was heavily bombarded during trench warfare. The beautiful scenery and grasslands of France and Belgium were churned into wet mud and desolate wasteland. It was here that many brave men fell after going “over the top” to meet the flying bullets of enemy guns. And it was also here that, when the fighting had died down, poppies grew and spread in abundance, their blood-red colour in strong contrast to the brown muck. One of the most well-known references to this phenomenon comes in the war poem, “In Flanders Fields” by Lt Col John McCrae. One key line is:

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

Earl Haig, supporter of the poppy and a founder of the Royal British Legion, visits wounded veterans at a hospital in 1921. Click the still to view the film.

These lines inspired their first use in the United States, where they were adopted by the National American Legion in 1920. It was not long before the wearing of poppies had spread to the United Kingdom, and it is here and in Commonwealth countries that the practice remains most common. Promoted by Douglas Haig, the poppies were soon widely worn on Remembrance Days. Made and sold by the Royal British Legion, the funds went - and still do today - to helping ex-servicemen and women and their families.

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, visits the Richmond factory in 1939 to watch the workers manufacture the poppies that were an important feature of remembrance even before the Second World War. Click the still to view the film.

War veterans make poppies at the Royal British Legion factory in Richmond, 1941. Click the still to view the film.

War veterans make poppies at the Royal British Legion factory in Richmond, 1941. Click the still to view the film.

An item in the British Pathé archive details the making of poppies for distribution by the British Legion. It was filmed at the Richmond poppy factory which employed disabled ex-servicemen to construct the huge number of poppies needed every year. At the time the newsreel was produced (in 1968), the factory had 300 staff and manufactured 13 million poppies per annum. To achieve such a mammoth task, the servicemen worked all year round.

Today, the factory produces as many as 36 million poppies per year, though the number of employees is only a fraction of what it once was.

The still to above shows a workman punching out the poppy shapes from a sheet of linen.

The cut-out shapes of linen are placed together and pressed into a mold.

The stalk is then applied, a thin strip of green fabric wrapped around a metal wire, before…

…the individual poppies are arranged into a wreath.

The full film also details the other stirling work done by the British Legion. It can be viewed by clicking here.

There’s been some controversy in recent years about the wearing of poppies and their meaning. There are also rival poppies – the white poppy for pacifists, and the purple poppy to remember animal victims of war. But the traditional red poppy is no doubt here to stay, and serves as a reminder of great courage and sacrifice, not just by those of the past, but by our countrymen and women who still fight for our safety in ongoing conflicts around the world today.

We will remember them.

Going “over the top”.

British Pathé has a substantial collection of war footage. Search our website www.britishpathe.com.

This article was originally posted, with minor differences, on October 31, 2012 as “Poppies: An Illustrated History”.

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