September 25, 2017

The Story Behind the Remembrance Poppy

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P From The Great War

Field poppies growing near cemetery on the old Western Front battlefields. Poppies growing near cemetery on the old Somme battlefield.

This is the story of how the red field poppy came to be known as an internationally recognized symbol of Remembrance.

From its association with poppies flowering in the spring of 1915 on the battlefields of Belgium, and Gallipoli this vivid red flower has become synonymous with great loss of in war.

Yet the scope of the poppy and its connection with the memory of those who have died in war has been expanded to help the living too. It was the inspiration and dedication of two women who promoted this same “Memorial Flower” as the means by which funds could be raised to support those in need of help, most especially servicemen and civilians suffering from physical and mental hardship as a result of war.

The GreatWar 1914-1918

german-trenches-ypres-salient-1-1915-300The Story Behind the Remembrance Poppy

Field poppies growing near Connaught British Military cemetery on the old Western Front battlefields. Poppies growing near Connaught British Military cemetery on the old Somme battlefield.

This is the story of how the red field poppy came to be known as an internationally recognized symbol of Remembrance.

From its association with poppies flowering in the spring of 1915 on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli this vivid red flower has become synonymous with great loss of life in war.

Yet the scope of the poppy and its connection with the memory of those who have died in war has been expanded to help the living too. It was the inspiration and dedication of two women who promoted this same “Memorial Flower” as the means by which funds could be raised to support those in need of help, most especially servicemen and civilians suffering from physical and mental hardship as a result of war.

moina-michael-book-cover-250Colour and Life in a Devastated Landscape

German soldiers carrying ladders through trenches in a smashed up wood on the Ypres Salient battlefield, 1915. German soldiers in trenches in a shattered wood on the Ypres Salient battlefield, 1915.

In the fighting zones the devastation caused to the landscape created a wasteland of churned up soil, smashed up woods, fields and streams. Few elements of the natural world could survive except for the soldiers who had little choice but to live in an underground network of holes, tunnels and trenches. In most cases the only living things they would see during tours of duty in the front line were scavenging rats, mice and lice.

James McConnell was an American pilot who had volunteered to fight in the war and was flying with the French Escadrille Lafayette. He recorded a vivid description of the destroyed landscape below him as he flew over the 1916 battlefield of Verdun. He describes the front line as a “brown belt, a strip of murdered Nature”:

“Immediately east and north of Verdun there lies a broad, brown band … Peaceful fields and farms and villages adorned that landscape a few months ago – when there was no Battle of Verdun. Now there is only that sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered Nature. it seems to belong to another world. Every sign of humanity has been swept away. The woods and roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a blackboard; of the villages nothing remains but gray smears Pwhere stone walls have tumbled together… On the brown band the indentations are so closely interlocked that they blend into a confused mass of troubled earth. Of the trenches only broken, half-obliterated links are visible.” (1)

However, sometimes the sights and sounds of nature could be seen and heard through the fog of battle. Soldiers spoke of how birds, and most particularly the lark, could be heard twittering high in the sky even during the fury of an artillery bombardment.

New Life on the Battlefields

Poppies growing on the Somme battlefield near Thiepval in France. Flanders corn poppies near Thiepval.

Against the odds, new life did also occasionally come into being in the battle zones. A story about the birth of new human life happened during the surprise gas attack on the French lines by the German Army on 22nd April 1915. At exactly 5 o’clock, as the gas cloud was released, a Belgian woman gave birth to a baby boy in the cellar of a cottage on the Zonnebeekseweg, just 3 kilometres from the poisonous gas cloud and the battle that was going on as a result of it.(2)

The spring of 1915 was the first time that warm weather began to warm up the countryside after the cold winter at war in 1914-T1915. In the region around Ypres in Belgian Flanders the months of April and May 1915 were unusually warm. Farmers were ploughing their fields close up to the front lines and new life was starting to grow. One of the plants that began to grow in clusters on and around the battle zones was the red field or corn poppy (it’s species name is: papaver rhoeas). It is often to be found in or on the edges of fields where grain is grown.

The field poppy is an annual plant which flowers each year between about May and August. It’s seeds are disseminated on the wind and can lie dormant in the ground for a long time. If the ground is disturbed from the early spring the seeds will germinate and the poppy flowers will grow.

This is what happened in parts of the front lines in Belgium and France. Once the ground was disturbed by the fighting, the poppy seeds lying in the ground began to germinate and grow during the warm weather in the spring and summer months of 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918. The field poppy was also blooming in parts of the Turkish battlefields on the Gallipoli penninsular when the ANZAC and British Forces arrived at the start of the campaign in April 1915.

“In Flanders Fields the Poppies Blow…”

we-shall-not-sleep-250Poppy on the old Somme battlefield

The sight of these delicate, vibrant red flowers growing on the shattered ground caught the attention of a Canadian soldier by the name of John McCrae. He noticed how they had sprung up in the disturbed ground of the burials around the artillery position he was in. It was during the warm days of early May 1915 when he found himself with his artillery brigade near to the Ypres-Yser canal. He is believed to have composed a poem following the death of a friend at that time. The first lines of the poem have become some of the most famous lines written in relation to the First World War.

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.

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

Inspiration for the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy

Miss Moina Belle Michael (4) Portrait of Moina Michael

The origin of the red Flanders poppy as a modern-day symbol of Remembrance was the inspiration of an American woman, Miss Moina Michael.

Moina Michael: “The Poppy Lady”

It was on a Saturday morning, 9th November 1918, two days before the Armistice was declared at 11 o’clock on 11th November. Moina Belle Michael was on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters in New York. She was working in the “Gemot” in Hamilton Hall. This was a reading room and a place where U.S. servicemen would often gather with friends and family to say their goodbyes before they went on overseas service.

On that day Hamilton Hall and the “Gemot” was busy with people coming and going. The Twenty-fifth Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries was in progress at the headquarters. During the first part of the morning as a young soldier passed by Moina’s desk he left a copy of the latest November edition of the “Ladies Home Journal” on the desk.(3)

At about 10.30am Moina found a few moments to herself and browsed through the magazine. In it she came across a page which carried a vivid colour illustration with the poem entitled “We Shall Not Sleep”. This was an alternative name sometimes used for John McCrae’s poem, which was also called “In Flanders Fields”. Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae had died of pneumonia several months earlier on 28th January 1918.

A black and white reproduction of the colour illustration which was printed in the Ladies Home Journal which had such an impact on Moina Michael. (5) The illustration from the Ladies Home Journal that inspired Moina Michael

Moina had come across the poem before, but reading it on this occasion she found herself transfixed by the last verse:

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.

In her autobiography, entitled “The Miracle Flower”, Moina describes this experience as deeply spiritual. She felt as though she was actually being called in person by the voices which had been silenced by death.

Moina Michael’s Pledge to Keep the Faith

At that moment Moina made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”. She vowed always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance. It would become an emblem for “keeping the faith with all who died”.

Compelled to make a note of this pledge she scribbled down a response on the back of a used envelope. She titled her poem “We Shall Keep the Faith”. The first verse read like this:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,

   Sleep sweet – to rise anew!

   We caught the torch you threw

   And holding high, we keep the Faith

   With All who died.

“We Shall Keep the Faith” by Moina Michael

Three men attending the conference then arrived at Moina’s desk. On behalf of the delegates they asked her to accept a cheque for 10 dollars, in appreciation of the effort she had made to brighten up the place with flowers at her own expense.

She was touched by the gesture and replied that she would buy twenty-five red poppies with the money. She showed them the illustration for John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” in the Ladies Home Journal, together with her response to it “We Shall Keep the Faith”. The delegates took both poems back into the Conference.

The First Poppies Worn in Remembrance

Artificial poppies

After searching the shops for some time that day Moina found one large and twenty-four small artificial red silk poppies in Wanamaker’s department store. When she returned to duty at the YMCA Headquarters later that evening the delegates from the Conference crowded round her asking for poppies to wear. Keeping one poppy for her coat collar she gave out the rest of the poppies to the enthusiastic delegates.

According to Moina, this was the first group-effort asking for poppies to wear in memory of “all who died in Flanders Fields”. Since this group had given her the money with which to buy them, she considered that she made the first sale of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy on 9th November 1918.

Campaign for the Poppy as a National Memorial Symbol

Moina Michael was determined to put all her energy towards getting the Poppy emblem adopted in the United States as a national memorial symbol. She was encouraged by a positive reaction to the idea by the press.

She began a tireless campaign at her own expense, starting with a letter to her congressman in December 1918. In the letter she asked him to put the idea to the War Department, which he immediately did. She wanted to act swiftly so that this new national emblem might be already be produced in the form of pins, on postcards and so on in time for the signing of the peace treaty at Versailles in June 1919.

She realized that after the war the numerous signs related to the war – the Red Cross, War Loan insignia, Service Flags – which had been evident all over the United States during it’s involvement in the war would gradually be removed. Moina considered that a replacement emblem, the red poppy, could be used to fill those empty spaces as a symbolic reminder of those who had not returned home to celebrate the end of the war.

Her religious upbringing inspired her to believe that the Flanders Memorial Poppy was indeed a spiritual symbol with more meaning behind it than pure sentimentalism. She likened the new optimism for a world returned to peace after the “war to end all wars” to the magnificent rainbow which appeared in the sky after the terrible flood in the bible.

The Torch and the Poppy Emblem

The Miracle Flower. Moina Michael’s autobiography about the story of the Memorial Poppy. Jacket cover of The Miracle Flower by Moina Michael.

Originally Moina intended to use the simple red, four petalled field poppy of Flanders as the Memorial Poppy emblem.

Moina was put in touch with a designer, Mr Lee Keedick, who offered to design a national emblem under contract. In December 1918 he produced a final design, which was accepted. This emblem consisted of a border of blue on a white background with the Torch of Liberty and a Poppy entwined in the centre, containing the colours of the Allied flags: red, white, blue, black, green and yellow. The design appealed to Moina.

The “Torch and Poppy” emblem was first used officially on 14th February, 1919 in Carnegie Hall, New York City. The event was a lecture given by the Canadian ace pilot, Colonel William Avery “Billy” Bishop, VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC DFC, ED. His lecture was titled “Air Fighting in Flanders Fields”. As the lecture ended a large flag with the new torch and poppy emblem on it was unfurled at the back of the stage.

However, in spite of the interest raised by the appearance of the new emblem at the time, and Moina’s continued efforts to publicize the campaign, this emblem was not taken up by any group or individual to help establish it as a national symbol.

There was so little public interest in the enterprise that eventually the emblem’s designer, Mr Keedick, abandoned his interest in pursuing Moina’s campaign.

The Poppy and Help for Wounded Ex-Servicemen

During the winter of 1918/1919 Moina Michael continued working for the Staff of the Overseas YMCA Secretaries. She visited wounded and sick men from her home state of who were hospitalized in nine of the debarkation hospitals in and around New York City. She wanted to find what extra things she could do for them in addition to the medical care they were receiving.

By March 1919 she had moved back to Georgia to take up her place at the University of Georgia. With the return of thousands of ex-servicemen to the state Moina realised that there was not only a need to honour the memory of those who had died in the service of their country, but also a need to remember that those who were returning also had mental, physical and spiritual needs.

During the summer months of 1919 Moina taught a class of disabled servicemen. There were several hundred ex-servicemen in rehabilitation at the University of Georgia. Learning about their needs at first hand gave her the impetus to widen the scope of the Memorial Poppy idea. She thought it could be developed so that it could be used to help all servicemen who needed help for themselves and for their dependants.

Official Recognition of the Memorial Poppy

In 1983 a WW1 veteran, the late Tom Price, lays a poppy wreath at the grave of a comrade killed on the Somme battlefield in July 1916. WW1 veteran Tom Price lays a poppy wreath.

By 1920 Moina Michael was beginning to lose hope that the Memorial Poppy idea would ever come to fruition. She was in a dilemma about whether to pursue her own academic career or whether to abandon it in order to devote herself entirely to the Memorial Poppy campaign. However, in the early 1920s a number of organizations did adopt the red poppy as a result of Moina’s dedicated campaign.

1920: The American Legion Adopts the Memorial Poppy

In 1919 the American Legion was founded as an organization by veterans of the United States armed forces to support those who had served in wartime in Europe during the First World War.

In August 1920 Moina discovered by chance that the Georgia Department of the American Legion was to convene on 20th of that month in Atlanta. Prior to the convention she searched out the delegates and the Navy representative promised to present her case for the Memorial Poppy to the convention.

The Georgia Convention subsequently adopted the Memorial Poppy but omitted the Torch symbol. The Convention also agreed to endorse the movement to have the Poppy adopted by the National American Legion and resolved to urge each member of the American Legion in Georgia to wear a red poppy annually on 11th November.

One month later, on 29th September 1920, the National American Legion convened in Cleveland. The Convention agreed on the use of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy as the United States’ national emblem of Remembrance.

For more on this story go to: http://www.greatwar.co.uk/article/remembrance-poppy.htm

 

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