The red poppy: an enduring symbol of remembrance around the globe since the First World War

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Article / October 26, 2017 / Project number: 14-0230

Ottawa, Ontario — The red poppy, in the language of flowers, stands for consolation. Red is symbolic of passion and love. The story of how this common field flower grew to be an international symbol of remembrance has peculiar roots.

Remembrance Day marks the anniversary of the official end of World War I hostilities at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of November 1918. The poppy is the international symbol of remembrance and is worn from the last Friday in October to the end of the day on November 11th.

Canadians wear poppies to honour and remember the ultimate sacrifice that has been paid by more than 117,000 Canadians to date. Each year, over 20 million poppies are distributed in communities across Canada. Millions of dollars in donations made to the Poppy Campaign are held in trust and used to help Veterans and their families who are in financial distress, as well as to help fund medical appliances and research, home services, care facilities and numerous other officially-sanctioned purposes.

In Canada, November 11th is officially called Remembrance Day, but it is also known as Armistice Day and Poppy Day. Remembrance Day is commemorated around the world, including by many of the 53 member countries of the Commonwealth, such as Australia and New Zealand. In the United States, Veterans Day falls on the same date. In the United Kingdom, the Sunday closest to November 11th is known as Remembrance Sunday.

During the Napoleonic wars of 1799-1815, the poppy appeared almost mysteriously in battlefields and graveyards in spring and summer and was one of the few plants able to thrive in the torn-up soil,  and seemed to spread a consoling red blanket over the buried soldiers.

During the First World War, poppies began to grow spontaneously again during springtime in battlefields and among the graves of soldiers in Flanders, which is an ancient region in what is now parts of Belgium and France.

Airborne poppy seeds floated over the ravaged landscape and settled into the disturbed ground of the battlefields and graveyards. The flowers flourished in the soil which was enriched by lime from the rubble and bomb debris.

Following the death of one of his fellow soldiers, Canadian doctor, soldier and poet Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872 - 1918) noticed this phenomenon and wrote about it in his legendary poem In Flanders Fields, which begins: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row”.

McCrae died of pneumonia while serving in 1918 and is buried near the place that inspired his poem. It would be fitting if poppies grew above his grave.

First published in England's Punch magazine in December 1915, the poem came to represent the sacrifices of all who fought in the First World War. Just two days before the Armistice in November 1918, the poem inspired an American woman, Moina Michael from Athens, Georgia, to wear a poppy year-round in memory of the war dead. She wrote a poem in reply, which was called “We Shall Keep the Faith,” which reads, in part: “We caught the torch you threw / And holding high / We keep the faith / With all who died.”

The idea of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance continued to grow. In 1920, Anna E. Guérin of France visited the United States and met Miss Michael. Madame Guérin then resolved to sell poppies handmade by widows around Armistice Day to raise money for poor children in the war-torn areas of France. During 1920 and 1921, she convinced veterans’ associations in the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand to adopt the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. At first, disabled veterans made the poppies by hand but as time went on and the required volume increased, factories took over. Britain’s poppy factory, established in 1922, makes about 36 million poppies annually.

Today, Canadian poppies have four petals but no stem or leaves and are made from flocked plastic, whereas in Britain, the poppies are made from paper, have two petals, a leaf and a stem. In Scotland, they are also made of paper but have four petals and no leaf or stem. All poppies today have a black centre for botanical accuracy.

Other than Remembrance Day, poppies can be worn at commemorative events throughout the year, such as anniversaries of significant battles, a memorial service at a Royal Canadian Legion convention and during Veterans Affairs Canada overseas events. The poppy may also be worn by Colour parties when on parade and by Legion members attending funeral services for Veterans or ordinary members.

The Royal Canadian Legion presents poppies to the Governor General and to the lieutenant-governors a few days before the campaign begins. Poppies are traditionally worn on the left lapel, or as close to the heart as possible.

Many people remove their poppies at the end of Remembrance Day ceremonies and place them at the base of the cenotaph as a sign of respect. In 2000, when the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier became part of the National War Memorial in Ottawa, a new tradition spontaneously arose when those in attendance began placing their poppies on the tomb at the end of the ceremonies.

By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs

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