Poppies (Part 3)

9 November 1918 ” In New York City, a middle-aged spinster hurried to her gloomy basement office at Columbia university. Grey clouds scudded overhead and rain threatened. A spectacular future beckoned to the forty-nine- year- old schoolteacher. She would dedicate the rest of her life to healing the wounds…..within the hour she would invent one of history’s most startling and evocative symbols”(1) Inspired by the McCrae poem and wondering how best to remember, she decided to wear poppies every year in remembrance. Other people, impressed by the gesture asked her for poppies to wear and she found some silk ones in a novelty store which she then distributed to those who asked. So the first (unofficial) poppy day was the beginning of a tradition. The rest of the story concerns business men, philanthropists, ordinary people, and the first international spread of the poppy back to France where a new idea was added. The poppies to be sold to various veterans’ associations round the world were to be made by French war widows.

The first British Poppy Day (1921) added layers of British mythology to the fragile flower. No longer the flower of Persephone it had become a symbol of faith “watered with the blood of soldiers….. an ever-recurring and never-dying memorial.” So although the poppy still held its connotations of oblivion (opium) it was adopted with enthusiasm and 30 million poppies were sold in 1922, made in a poppy factory by disabled soldiers. ANZAC day, in memory of Australian and New Zealand troops, added the poppy to their commemorations as an image for the Allied nations and respect for the French battleground, and although the second heroine of our story, French widow Anna Guerin had done so much and continued to do so, many countries started making their own rather than buying them from France. Let US make the poppies was the cry!

It was the energy of these two ,sometimes warring, women that propelled the poppy forward to what I thought was global domination as a symbol until I came to live in Italy and my lapel had to remain bare in November.( I later found out that in Catholic European countries the crysanthemum ,the “golden flower” adorned and shaped their memories. A tradition which had started in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century after the church had divided.) The poppy was used to remember the fallen in WW2 (so just how little had the remembering of the First War served?) but in America it was beginning to lose its appeal. The American counterculture captures the ambiguity of the poppy

“I cry but I can’t buy

Your Veteran’s Day poppy

It don’t get me high

It can only make me cry” (2)

I am not going into the stories , interesting though they are, of the white poppy of the pacifists and the purple poppy of the animalists. Or indeed the problems relating to poppy wearing in Ireland. And where shall we leave Helmland and the Afghan war with the poppy (opium this time) as an emblem of survival, resistance, crime, poverty? So ends our journey from Flanders to Helmland via America of the Civil War. And if you want to know more, as indeed I hope you do, please read Nicholas Saunders’ great book into which I have dipped unashamedly to retell the story in these few words.

(1)and (2) The Poppy.A history of conflict, loss ,remembrance & redemption,Nicholas J. Saunders, 2014pub’d One World


Poppies (part 2)

War and pain, grief and remembrance had always been with us but the field and opium poppies had not yet been turned into the potent symbol of the Remembrance poppy. But it would, in the obscene horror of the first World War. The trenches which we are so familiar with from documentaries and films were not the only scenario; flying above the Somme a young fighter pilot wrote “among the devastated cottages…….the desecrated cemetaries……the poppies were growing” and even the men in the trenches were attracted to that fragile fleeting beauty. Sapper Jack Martin put his little posy of small marguerites and flaming poppies on a makeshift table, a momentary distraction from the filth, flies and lice.(1) Probably flowers still have a deep meaning inscribed in them: the budding,the opening sepals giving a glimpe of the colour beneath, the bursting into bloom, the uncrumpling of the petals to live a day or two of total glory but then, to droop, fade, drop petals and die.

What was behind this popular symbolism of poppies being the resurrected dead arising?There is a terrible botanical truth behind the symbol: before the war the soil of Belgian Flanders was deficient in lime but the shattered villages, shattered bones fertilised the landscape and gave rise to the abundant flowering of the poppy. So at the beginning of the war we have rather romantic, jingoistic poems citing the poppies, but it didn’t take much time in the trenches to change all that ! Just 3 years later Isaac Rosenberg writes one of the greatest of the war poems:

The darkness crumbles away –

It is the same old druid Time as ever.

Only a live thing leaps my hand-

A queer sardonic rat-

As I pull the parapet’s poppy

To stick behind my ear…

What do you see in our eyes

At the shrieking iron and flame

Hurled through still heavens?

Poppies whose roots are in a man’s veins

Drop,and are ever dropping;

But mine in my ear is safe,

Just a little white with the dust”………………………………..the poppy has taken on vampirish qualities. Meanwhile….. back to opium

As late as 1916 Harrods were selling morphine gift boxes. Not only the wounded benefited from its calming properties though, for in 1917 cigarettes were dropped to Turkish troops fighting in Gaza and the next day the troops were virtually unable to fight!

Note1: Sapper Jack Martin’s diary is one of several recently published first World War accounts that had lain undiscovered for decades.


Poppies (Part 1)

The corn poppy re-christened Flanders poppy and immortalised by John McCrae, has a weight of symbolism which seems too heavy for such a fragile dainty flower to bear. Anyone who has tried to make a poppy lady will attest to its delicacy. But as with its cousin, the opium poppy, they are both flowers of war the tradition of the soothing soporific quality of the opium poppy seems to have melded with the idea of a remembrance poppy. It has been with us from neolithic times and is a very successful weed, happiest to grow on churned-up land. It has been excavated at lake Bracciano as well as in many older sites, living with us and being cultivated for its soporific and painkilling properties. EIGHTY million poppies are sold worldwide every year to remember and honour the dead. Such a weight on such fragility! Assyria, ancient Egypt, Minoa, the opium poppy was important to the Greeks and later to the Romans and is to be found flowering on the banks of Lethe.

Poppies, transfigured, took a great leap forward in the 19th century leaving behind their archeological and mythical connotations. Now it was war! The freshly churned-up ground at the battle of Waterloo was thick with poppies and the tradition arose that these were stained scarlet with the blood of the slain. Empires went to war over the opium poppy and the enormous profits to be made from them. Janus Bi-front or poppy Bi.front, for on the one hand poppy profits helped finance the industrialisation of war whilst on the other, it alleviated suffering. In the 1820’s the miraculous properties of morphine (from Morpheus the god of sleep) as a pain killer was spread over all Europe. Britain created, was in fact a drug cartel and by causing the Opium wars against China made vast sums of money. The wealth accrued by the Empire would be spent to finance the 1914/1918 war. The British “Romantic poets” included many opium eaters and the whole Romantic movement tended to glorify the literary properties of a drop or two of laudanum.

the Poppy Field near Argenteuil,1873 by Claude Monet

The American Civil war tested in its extreme conditions (it was one of the most brutal, tragic wars ever, with a huge percentage of men lost) the efficacy of the opiates :”maimed and shattered survivors from a hundred battlefields, diseased and disabled soldiers……anguished and hopeless wives and mothers, made so by the slaughter of those who were dearest to them have found……temporary relief from their suffering in opium”. (“The Opium habit”, Horace Day, 1868) but with painters and poets came a kind of conflation of the two types of poppy “All silk and flame”(Ruskin) but Keats waxed lyrical “drowsed with the fume of poppies”. Here the two are finally one.


Remembrance Day

Remembrance seems to be a particularly English sentiment. We are good at it, great at War Poetry, War memorials and remembering. In beautiful Ely cathedral there’s a long list of names, handwritten in lovely script and they turn a page over every day, the roll of honour. The omnipotent poppy, because of a very poor poem is a strong unifying symbol which means a lot to me because when I was just a girl I would go selling poppies for the British Legion, an organisation which collects money for ex-servicemen and their families. I didn’t get the collection in the village, I was allotted the fens, miles and miles of fertile flat land criss-crossed by ditches and dykes courtesy of the Dutch, who drained flat ,waterlogged East Anglia and where there were only a few farms, long potato mounds and landworkers mostly on tractors. The gentleman who organised the whole thing accompanied me in his car, I just had to tramp across the ploughed fields in my wellies. but he was a real old-fashioned gentleman and I’ll always remember meeting him in the street where he raised his hat to me ! That was an incredible moment because I wasn’t much more than a kid.

So poppies are everywhere in November. If you ever see a picture of any members of the Royal family they are always wearing them, both at the miliary concert in the Royal Albert Hall and the Commemoration at the Cenotaph. This year the concert was given to an empty hall and I can assure you that when the lone trumpeter plays ” the last post” and the red poppy petals come wafting down from the ceiling symbolising the wasted lives of the soldiers in the trenches and other battlefields, it is difficult to hold back a tear, because we are remembering a filthy, blood- and- guts war, where soldiers were dying ,terrified in bloody, shitty , rat-infested trenches. Young men, some just boys because they had lied about their age. So honestly, whatever people say about putting the past behind us, I still think we should honour our fallen.

This year as lockdown impedes gatherings, undaunted, they have decided to ask people to stand on their doorsteps wearing their poppies and displaying poppies in their windows while they observe 2 minutes’ silence. What’s a hundred years in man’s memory?