As we all know, the red poppy is the enduring symbol of remembrance for soldiers who have died in war and this New Year will be significant as a year of commemoration of the 1914-18 conflict.
Traditionally, poppies have been a symbol of sleep, peace and death – sleep, because of the medicinal properties inherent in the plant, and death from the blood red colour, echoing the Greek and Roman traditions of offering poppies to the dead as a symbol of enduring sleep.
Our modern perception of the poppy is inevitably that of Flanders Fields during WW1.
The poppy fields of Flanders were devastated by trench warfare and the graves of the fallen were adorned by the poppies that quickly re-established themselves in the broken landscape.
The image of the poppy inspired Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician, to compose a poem on the death of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer at the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915. ‘In Flanders Fields’ was published in December 1915 in ‘Punch’ magazine and quickly became a most popular and recognised piece – ‘In Flanders Fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row …..’
Inspired by the poem, American professor Moina Michael took up the idea at the end of the war of wearing a red poppy to honour the fallen and campaigned for the adoption of the symbol as a universal commemoration of Remembrance. By 1921, poppy sellers in the days leading up to Armistice Day caught the attention of Field Marshall Douglas Haigh, a co-founder of The Royal British Legion and he supported and encouraged the cause.
Today, the symbol remains an enduring way to recognise the sacrifice of the fallen.
Look out for the Library of Birmingham’s exhibition Voices of War, October – December 2014
Judy Dennison, Archivist, January 2014