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