Why We Wear Poppies

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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History in My Back Yard

Vast new audiences – journalists, historians, teachers and bloggers – have been actively mining the British Pathé archive since it went online in 2008.

Chris Holme, of the History Company, describes how one clip has shed completely fresh light on his own backyard:

At first glance, it looks as dull as dishwater – female Polish soldiers on parade in Scotland in 1943. No sound, monochrome, and no hint about provenance or location.

Looking more closely, the road seems strangely familiar, then the name of the hotel and finally the beach.  This is when the penny finally dropped this was Gullane – and they were marching through to sand dunes through the fields where our house and others would be built forty years later.

Polish women troops in Gullane. The location had remained unidentified for years.
Polish women troops in Gullane. The location had remained unidentified for years.

The film also has wider intrinsic interest – newsreels often show troop formations but rarely individual soldiers in close up. And even more rarely women soldiers in such detail and with such intimacy.

So it is a real, undiscovered gem – particularly for those who might now recognise their granny as a younger woman in khaki.

Newsreel archives have traditionally provided visual backdrops for documentary makers – sometimes offering genuinely new insight or just period wallpaper for a tired script.

Putting them online has opened up a whole new vista and worldwide audience who can look at the films for their intrinsic worth and add perspective and context.

I found two films of the Irish Free State football team in 1924 playing Celtic and the USA. At first glance, just lots of guys chasing a ball. But they also say a lot about the development of the Free State following the civil war.

It is also the first glimpse of Celtic playing overseas, the most travelled British club of that era and the Americans whose footballers were also much better behaved than the American rugby team. Both did well at the 1924 Paris Olympics, apart from a riot at the final against France and subsequent dropping of rugby as an Olympic sport – the USA are still the reigning Olympic rugby champions!

There is more, much more to discover, whatever your interest. And there may even be a film that shows your own back yard. Words by Chris Holme of The History Company.

POLISH_WOMEN_TROOPS_1859_02_335

The Polish Women Troops film can be viewed here.

Explore the British Pathé archive at www.britishpathe.com

or visit Chris Holme’s History Company site.

The Munich Pact – 75 Years

September 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of the Munich Agreement attempted to halt Europe’s march to war. British Pathé has a great deal of footage relevant to this anniversary. Click the links below to take a look.

Chamberlain at Berchtesgaden 

Two films are included in this WorkSpace featuring Chamberlain heading off to Berchtesgaden to meet with Hitler to discuss the fate of Czechoslovakia.

Chamberlain’s Second Trip to Meet Hitler

Chamberlain returns from his second visit to Germany.

Munich Agreement

These six vintage newsreels cover the Sudeten crisis as it was at the end of September, Chamberlain leaving for Munich, the Munich conference itself, and the signing of the Agreement by Germany, Italy, France and Britain. There’s also a brief biography of Neville Chamberlain from October 1938, celebrating him as “Man of the Hour”.

Chamberlain signs the Munich Agreement.
Chamberlain signs the Munich Agreement.

www.britishpathe.com

British Pathé Picks: July 2013

Here are some things in the archive that may be of interest to you over the next few weeks. Click on the links to take a look.

2013 British Open   (18 July)

The 142nd Open Championship takes place this month in Scotland. British Pathé’s coverage of past events can be seen on our website via this link.

Wiley Post Flies Solo   (22 July)

80 years: Wiley Post was the first to fly solo around the world. British Pathé has two newsreels covering the historic flight in this collection.

Bombing of Hamburg   (24 July)

It is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hamburg in Operation Gomorrah. Shots of the RAF and USAF raids and the devastation wrought can be found here.

Korean War Truce  (27 July)

60 years: The signing of the truce in 1953 was covered by Pathé News and the original newsreel can be viewed here. The archive also has additional material from the Korean War, including combat footage. Here’s a selection.

www.britishpathe.com

Imphal and Kohima

The British people have voted for their “greatest battle” in a poll conducted by the National Army Museum. The combined victories at Imphal and Kohima against the Japanese in the Second World War are now taken to be the “Greatest British Battle” in history, winning more than half of the votes cast. The runner up was D-Day, with 25 per cent of the vote. A full list of the contenders can be found here, in an article for The Daily Telegraph. For each of these engagements, the British Pathé archive has some relevant films that should be of interest.

Imphal and Kohima

“Invasion Scenes Far East” is a newsreel item showing British troops advancing towards Imphal in India. “Japs Trapped At Imphal” follows Indian infantry of 5th and 7th Indian divisions as they advance through the Hills of Manipur, past the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers, to trap the enemy.  Finally, “Driving Out The Japs” follows Lord Louis Mountbatten inspecting Indian soldiers and British men of the 14th Army at Imphal and Kohima. You can find all three films in this collection.

JAPS_TRAPPED_AT_IMPHAL__1358_05_2

D-Day

There’s an extensive collection of films from the Normandy landings during WW2 in the British Pathé archive. Click here for a selection. A more general Second World War Collection can be found here.

OVER_THERE!_1360_07_31

www.britishpathe.com

Arctic Convoy and Bomber Command Veterans Get Medals

It has been in the news that, after many years of campaigning, Arctic Convoy and Bomer Command veterans will receive medals for their service during the Second World War.

There can be no doubt that the 250,000 men who will be receiving these medals in less than two weeks time showed courage and served their country with distinction during those perilous years.

Visit our Bomber Command collection.

Visit our Arctic Convoy collection.

Convoy to Russia (1942)
Convoy to Russia (1942)

www.britishpathe.com

Popes of the Twentieth Century

Today’s news is full of stories about the Pope’s resignation. After eight years, Benedict XVI will step down due to ill health. He will be the first pope to relinquish the position since Gregory XII in 1415. This was the statement that was released by the Vatican:

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonisations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.

I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.

For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

From the Vatican, 10 February 2013

BENEDICTUS PP XVI

The British Pathé archive holds a great deal of material related to the papacy and to many of the previous popes who served during the Twentieth Century.

Benedict XV

The earliest footage of a pope in the archive dates from 1922. Benedict XV died in this year and newsreels announced his death. His twenty-first century namesake called him a “prophet of peace” for his role in the First World War.

"Requiescat in Pace. Late Pope Benedict XV lying in State", 1922 newsreel.
“Requiescat in Pace. Late Pope Benedict XV lying in State”, 1922 newsreel.

Pius XI

British Pathé filmed the election of Benedict XV’s successor, who served from 1922 until his own death in 1939. During his tenure, he presided over the transformation of Vatican City into a sovereign state. Click here to view a selection of news stories from his reign.

Pope Pius XI has a public appearance after recovering from a heart attack, 1938.
Pope Pius XI has a public appearance after recovering from a heart attack, 1938.

Pius XII

Pope Pius XII was on the Vatican throne from 1939 until 1958, serving notably during the years Second World War.

Pope Pius XII is crowned, 1939.
Pope Pius XII is crowned, 1939.

John XXIII

“Good Pope John” served from 1958 until 1963.

Pope John XXIII prays in the Vatican Grottos.
Pope John XXIII prays in the Vatican Grottos.

Paul VI

Pope Paul VI (r. 1963-1978) was the first Pope to visit the United States. The archive contains footage of the visit, as well as other events from his tenure.

The Pope visits Uganda, 1969.
The Pope visits Uganda, 1969.

John Paul II

When Paul VI died in 1978, he was succeeded by John Paul I. Sadly, 33 days after his succession, John Paul was discovered dead in his bed. John Paul II replaced him, the first non-Italian pope for more than 400 years. He died in 2005 and an episode of A Day That Shook The World documents the funeral.

Search for more footage at www.britishpathe.com