During the First World War, millions of soldiers saw the poppies in Flanders fields on the Western Front. Some even sent pressed poppies home in letters.
Over 100 years later, the poppy is still a world-recognised symbol of remembrance of the First World War, and millions of people choose to wear a red poppy in November.
But when did this tradition start? What is it about the poppy that captured the public imagination so profoundly? And why do some people see the poppy as a controversial symbol?
First World War Curator Laura Clouting tells us about the history of the poppy.
Where did the red poppy symbol come from?
In 2014, 800,000 ceramic copies designed by Paul Cummings and Tom Piper went on display at the Tower of London. Two parts of this installation later went on tour around the UK to 19 different locations before ending up at IWM London in 2018.
Nearly 10 million people saw this display in total. This year the poppy sculptures are being installed at IWM North. These evocative displays demonstrate the resounding popularity of the poppy over 100 years since the end of the First World War. So, what is it about the poppy that captured the public imagination so profoundly? Why do some people see the poppy as a controversial symbol? And how was the poppy chosen in the first place?
Laura Clouting: “So the red poppy has arguably become the most enduring symbol of Remembrance and really that is linked to I suppose what we could call a botanical phenomenon uh because poppies provided this kind of shocking burst of plant life in very otherwise bleak landscapes on the Western Front and that really was helped along actually by the fact that modern weaponry, particularly artillery basically pulverised the soil and high explosive shells actually had quite a surprisingly generative effect and they basically created the perfect conditions in which this, the red poppy could grow. And they were everywhere, there was a huge profusion of them in the Western Front so they would have been something that soldiers saw very commonly.”
Interviewer: “Am I right in thinking that area would have had a lot of poppies?”
Norah Barker: “It is very poor agricultural land all the way along and I can remember the fields more or less red with poppies than anything else. Very poverty, very poor.”
Interviewer: “So, do you think the poppy is a good symbol?”
Norah Baker: “Oh I do, yes, it is a very good symbol yes.”
Laura Clouting: “Because they grew so commonly many soldiers not only enjoyed looking at them but lots of soldiers actually plucked them out of the soil and took the fragile petals to press into letters home and I think for soldiers, although we think of the poppy as being quite a depressing thing in some ways because we associate it with the lives lost, at the time many soldiers felt that they were a really beautiful sigh. IWM actually has quite a number of examples of these poppies in our collection and they're an incredible thing to look at a hundred years later.”
Archibald Dickson: “The Flanders poppied them all over this place, there was poppies had sprung up and they were so uh talked about regarded as symbolic in a way that I thought I’d pick a few and send them home. So, I did that, I sent them to Jessica but when she died there was found among her belongings the envelope in which I had sent home those poppies with the remains of the poppies still there.”
Among the millions of people who saw the poppies on the Western Front was a Canadian doctor called Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. He was a medic in a dressing station very close to the front line near Ypres. John McCrae wasn't an established writer but he had had poems published back in Canada and as a military doctor he used what rest time he had to write poems in response to what he was experiencing during the war.
Laura Clouting: “In May 1915, during a break from tending to wounded and dying soldiers, he wrote a new poem and it's a poem commonly known as ‘In Flanders Fields’, and it's has its setting as a cemetery and it's written as if it was it were being spoken by dead soldiers and this poem did become popular during the war, it was published in hugely popular magazines, it helped to, I suppose, connect the symbolism of death during the war with the poppy and McCrae himself did not actually survive the war, but it was really after the war that the poppy became the iconic symbol of Remembrance that it is today.”
In 1920, there were numerous acts of Remembrance across Britain, such as two-minute silence, the burial of the unknown warrior and the unveiling of the Cenotaph in London. But at this point we can see that the poppy was not yet the flower of Remembrance that we think of it as today.
Laura Clouting: “If you look at photos from, say, the unveiling of the Cenotaph, the wreaths that are laid around its base were actually not of poppies. You can see even though the photos are black and white you can see quite clearly that there are other flowers, and the poppy isn't as established and had not taken hold as it's known today.”
The poppy's status as a recognisable symbol of Remembrance and its use as a fundraising tool began after the war and this was primarily driven by the work of two different women.
Laura Clouting: “One of those women was an American academic called Mona Michael. She had been inspired by John McCrae's poem, just before the armistice, and she described in her memoirs reading the poem and having a very intense kind of spiritual experience and she was moved to buy artificial flowers to distribute them for wearing as on people's lapels as a symbol of Remembrance. There was also another woman called Anna Guerin. She was had very well established in the sense of setting up a network of French war widows who made artificial flowers made from silk to raise funds for various causes.”
Anna Guerin was christened ‘the poppy lady from France’, and by 1920 her work had resulted in the American Legion and the Major Veterans Association in the USA adopting the poppy as a symbol of Remembrance. After this success, Guerin then turned her attention to Britain.
Laura Clouting: “In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, there were many Veterans’ Associations set up and some of these Associations were brought together under the umbrella of a new organisation called the British Legion, which had just been formed by the time in August 1921 when Anna Guerin came to Britain to meet with the British Legion and to basically persuade them to adopt selling artificial poppies. She was backed and the British Legion's figurehead was Earl Hague and so the first ever Poppy Day was arranged and established in Britain, held on 11th of November 1921.”
After the first appeal it was clear that there was a huge appetite for the Remembrance poppy in Britain. Volunteers were rallied across the country and the appeal was so popular that sellers couldn't keep up with the demand.
Laura Clouting: “A huge sum was raised for Veteran welfare, somewhere in the sum today of around three million pounds. So the idea perpetuated itself in future years and in order to make sure that there was an adequate supply of poppies, the British Legion decided to set up its own poppy factory employing wounded servicemen to make artificial poppies and a few years later to make sure that there was an adequate supply of poppies to Scotland, another poppy factory was established in Edinburgh but with a slightly different design, they had four petals and no green leaf and there was an argument that this was much more botanically correct.”
The symbol of the poppy is more popular and well established than it's ever been, but for some people the poppy is seen as a contentious symbol.
Laura Clouting: “It has now come to symbolise the sacrifice and the efforts of the armed forces in more recent conflicts but because these more recent conflicts have become more complex and perhaps less morally ambiguous to some people, and therefore not as well supported as broadly the world wars were, the poppy has become a more contentious symbol. This primarily manifests itself in alternative poppies, for example, the white poppy is the most familiar, a symbol of peace, anti-war set up by the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s to challenge militarism. It's also seen in controversies over the red poppy being appropriated by, for example, far-right organisations and the objection that some people have to wearing it because they see it as being connected to the actions of Britain’s army, for example, in Northern Ireland during the Troubles which they find very difficult. But in conclusion, the poppy is still worn by millions of people every Remembrance Day and into the November season when we see poppies all around us, on people's lapels, in wreaths, at War Memorials, and over 100 years later it has also inspired artwork like that which we saw at the Tower of London in 2014. Its literal and symbolic scenes were rooted in the First World War’s turbulent landscape and it's really interesting to remember the poppy then as a symbol of hope, of a morale boost, as a burst of colour in very bleak landscapes during the First World War.”
Today, the poppy brooch is still worn by millions of people across the UK and the Commonwealth every year, over a hundred years after the end of the First World War to commemorate those who have lost their lives in armed service. It continues to be a vital fundraising tool for the British Legion charity and an important Remembrance symbol in artworks tributes and commemorative events. Thanks for watching; don't forget to like and subscribe for more videos from IWM.