Why The Poppy Is The Symbol Of Remembrance Day

101 years, 5 months, and 2 days ago Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae sat down and wrote the timeless remembrance poem “In Flanders Field”. After presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow serviceman Alexis Helmer, Lieutenant-Colonel McCrae penned the 15 line poem while noticing red poppies grew uninhibited around the graves of fallen servicemen. The story goes that at first, McCrae wrote the poem while sitting at the back of an ambulance and immediately dissatisfied with his efforts, he discarded the paper it was written on. It was retrieved by a fellow serviceman, and the poem was published in the London based Magazine “Punch”. Due to its immediate success it was turned into propaganda, it was used as a recruiting call and it was even used as a pitch for war bonds. Although immensely popular at the time, no know knew the extent to which a simple poem, written by a war-tired Canadian would have on the world at large.

In 1918 World War l was coming to an end. There was a light at the end of the tunnel of death and destruction that took up the better part of five years. A middle-aged school teacher named Moina Michaels from Athens, Georgia, inspired by the classic poppy-centred poem “In Flander’s Field”, wrote “We Shall Keep the Faith”. She wrote the response poem while on a leave from teaching at the University of Georgia. She relocated to New York to volunteer at the headquarters of the YWCA and was deeply moved by the McCrae poem:

"We cherish too the poppy red

That grows on fields where valour led.

It seems to signal to the skies,

The blood of heroes never dies.”

So inspired by the ultimate sacrifice made by the soldiers embroiled in the battle, Michaels returned to the University of Georgia and taught a class for disabled servicemen from the war. It was during this time that she realized these military personnel deserved the utmost respect and should be remembered and celebrated. These servicemen were now unable to provide for themselves due to their disabilities, so Michaels took it upon herself to do something about it. She began crafting and selling crude silk poppy replicas to raise funds for her “students”. Due to the overwhelming success of her endeavour, the American Legion took notice and in 1921 they adopted the Poppy as the official symbol of remembrance for war veterans.  

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a war widow from France named Anne Guerin took up the poppies’ cause for the same reasons. France had lost a whole generation of men to the war and Madame Guerin felt they deserved a symbol of remembrance like the Americans. She, like Michaels, began selling small hand crafted replicas of the poppy in order to raise funds to rebuild her war torn country. After a successful campaign in France, she made the trip to Canada to continue her crusade. The Royal Canadian Legion adopted the poppy as the official symbol of remembrance in 1921 (along with Britain and Australia). In the beginning, the Canadian Legion bought its poppies from Madame Guerin’s organization. This continued until 1966 when the Legion began enlisting Canadian companies to create the replicas.  

Millions of poppies are sold worldwide each year throughout the commonwealth to support veterans and their families and to remember those who have fallen to fight in the name of freedom. In 2014 a record of 19 million poppies were sold in Canada alone. The combination of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, and November 11th as Remembrance Day we stand together, poppies pinned close to our hearts on our left lapels. We remember those who fought and died for our country and hence, for us. The joys and freedoms we now enjoy are because of their sacrifices; sacrifices made in the hopes we as a people would never have to endure the horrors of war again.