Each year, millions of poppies are made and sold to raise funds for charities which benefit the armed forces and their families. Find out how and why the poppy was adopted as a symbol of remembrance in the aftermath of the First World War.

A new culture of grief

During the First World War, soldiers, sailors and airmen who died abroad were buried where they fell. Many had no marked grave. 

Without a body to bury, families could not observe normal funeral practices. This led to the creation of a new culture of grief. New practices included building local and national war memorials, standing silent for two minutes on Remembrance Day, and wearing a poppy to remember a fallen loved one.

The poppy is an enduring symbol of remembrance. Its origins lie in the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Canadian soldier Colonel John McCrae, written following the death of a friend in May 1915.

Four-page printed leaflet advertising the first Remembrance Day, November 11th, with the poem “The Call in Flanders Fields” by John McCrae on the front cover. The back page advertises the British Legion's Flanders Poppy appeal, published by the British Legion Appeal and Publicity Department, 30 Rutland Square, Edinburgh, probably 1919.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

                     - John McCrae, May 1915

The women behind the poppy

After the First World War, the poppy was adopted in many countries as a symbol of remembrance. In America, teacher Moina Michael handed out silk poppies to raise money for charity. In France, war-widow Anna Guerin began to produce fabric poppies to be sold to help those affected by the war.

Through the work of organisations and individuals, the poppy became both a symbol of remembering those who died and a means of raising money to help those who survived.

1921

Anna Guerin showed examples of her handmade poppies to the newly-formed British Legion in London. The President of the British Legion was Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig of Bemersyde, the former commanding officer of the British Army on the Western Front.

1922

Concerned by the plight of former soldiers, Earl Haig quickly supported Guerin’s idea of selling poppies to raise money for ex-servicemen and their families. A poppy-making factory was established in London, where disabled veterans made poppies for sale in the United Kingdom.

1926

Such was the demand for poppies in England that few were sent to Scotland. In response, Lady Dorothy Haig established her own poppy-making factory in Edinburgh which provided employment for disabled ex-servicemen. Today veterans at the Lady Haig Poppy Factory continue to make all Scotland’s poppies.

Remembrance Day booklet signed by Lady Dorothy Haig's husband, Field Marshal Haig, 1921 - part of a group of objects associated with the service of Lieutenant-Colonel B.H. Austin, World War I      

Contested ground

While the red poppy remains an image of remembrance for many, for others its meaning has changed in response to contemporary events. Now in Britain, the poppy is used to remember those victims who died in active service in all wars since the First World War.

In 21st century Britain, the poppy is a contested symbol. In today’s media-driven world, both wearing and not wearing poppies draws criticism from different sections of society.

Header image: Ceramic poppy from the First World War commemorative installation ' Blood swept and seas of red' at the Tower of London in 2014, designed by artist Paul Cummins


The Poppy: A Symbol of Remembrance is running at the National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle until 27 January 2019. Admission is free with entrance to the Castle.

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