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.