I remember being five or six years old and giving a £1 coin to a gentleman in uniform for a red paper flower. My Nan pinned the flower to my coat and explained that it was special. “We’re paying respect to those who died for our freedom”, explained my Grandad. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I really understood what that meant.
On the 11th day of the 11th month at 11:00 am, in 1918 the First World War formally ended. In three years, an estimated 21 million people lost their lives, 9 million of which died fighting and 13 million died as civilians. Across the Commonwealth countries, 11th November is observed as a Remembrance Day, in honour of civilians and those serving in the armed forces who died during the war.
Remembrance day is also referred to as Poppy Day, because of the tradition of wearing a red Poppy. In this blog post, I’m going to introduce you to the Flanders Poppy (Papaver rhoeas), the symbol of the First World War, describe its cultural significance and explain the history behind why this delicate little flower became associated with one of the most infamous wars in recent history.
Flanders Poppies are annual plants with brilliant red, four-petal flowers that have iconic black spots in their centre. Although the flowers only last a day, each plant can produce around 400 flowers. Their seeds persist in seed banks in soil for many years and only germinate when the soil is disturbed.
Before they were known as Flanders Poppies, they were known as Corn Poppies because they are an agricultural weed and known to invade Corn fields. They are a particular nuisance because of their ability to flower and seed before harvest time, making them hard to eradicate without damaging the crops around them. However, the presence of Poppies in a field was considered a sign of agricultural fertility.
The key to them becoming the symbol of the First World War lies in the fact that they flower after ground disturbance. During the warfare of the First World War, the area between the trenches and no man’s land was heavily disturbed. Once the fighting and disturbance stopped, fields of Poppies began to blossom in a sea of red along the ground where the armed forces fell.
It’s hard to put into words the awe created by a field of Poppies, so I will end this post with John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, which beautifully encapsulates those deep emotions. John McCrae (1872-1918) was a Canadian soldier and poet. He served in the First World War and passed away from pneumonia just before its end.
“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.”
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Header image: Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto
Poppy flower: NickyPe
Poppy field: Tim Hill
Single Poppy: Susann Mielke