Ninety-five years ago today, in 1918, the world saw an effective end to hostilities in the European conflict we know today as World War I, in which 886,939 British servicemen lost their lives on the battlefield.
Today in the United Kingdom, and various other commonwealth countries, millions display their remembrance by wearing a red poppy – a flower which, upon the signing of the armistice 95 years ago, became an iconic symbol of the Great War. Of course, these days it is worn not just to commemorate those lost in World War I, but in all wars past and present.
Oddly enough, though, it was introduced to remembrance festivities not by the British or their European allies, but by the Americans; moreover, it was conceived by one American in particular: Moina Michael.
An American professor and humanitarian, Michael was inspired by the now revered poem In Flanders Field, which was penned by Canadian soldier John McCrae one day after witnessing the killing of a fellow combatant in 1915. In it, McCrae refers to the poppies that grow (in Flanders fields), using the imagery of graves overgrown by poppies.
If rumors are to be believed, McCrae initially disliked the poem, which only found its way into battleground folklore after it was passed around by fellow servicemen. Eventually, it would become one of the most iconic poems of World War I, alongside the works of British war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
Meanwhile, during a YWCA conference in November 1918, around the very time of the war’s end, Moina Michael – having vowed to always wear the poppy in remembrance of those who had fallen – distributed 25 poppies to those in attendance and, thus, a tradition was born.
Indeed, at her insistence, the poppy was soon adopted by the American Legion as a symbol of remembrance, and the manufactured poppies we see today were sent to veterans groups in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Ironically, poppies are no longer a prevailing symbol of remembrance in the United States, which reserves November 11 for what is known as Veterans Day – a national holiday honoring all persons, past and present, who have served in the United States armed forces. However, the poppy is still distributed stateside by some veteran groups, such as the American Legion Auxiliary, on both Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, the poppy is a highly common sight at this time of year. Indeed, many UK citizens will buy their red poppies, which are sold annually by the Royal British Legion, weeks in advance of Remembrance Day.
Furthermore, the use of the poppy has expanded beyond the role of a simple clothing appendage; in the UK it is the chief component of the commemorative wreath, which can be seen adorning headstones and erected war memorials.
In recent years, alternative colors for the commemorative poppy have arisen, with some choosing to wear a white version in support not necessarily of the fallen, but of the very notion of peace. And, in an effort to remind people that animals are a frequent casualty of war, members of Animal Aid continue to distribute purple poppies.
In the most basic terms, the poppy is a symbol of peace, thankfulness and remembrance. It will perhaps forever remain a tangible accompaniment to the enduring phrase “we will never forget.”