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Poppies for Remembrance Day

© John Keith 2010

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The Origins of the Remembrance Day Poppy are in a World War One Poem

Every year in the weeks and days leading up to Remembrance Day on November 11th, more and more people wear a small red flower, a poppy, pinned to their shirt or jacket. What are the origins of this tradition?

Remembrance Day, of course, is the day we remember and honour the soldiers who have died or been wounded fighting for their country. Remembrance Day, which is called Veteran's day in the United States, was originally named Armistice Day. It commemorated the signing of the armistice, or truce, that stopped the fighting on the western front at the end of the First World War. The armistice took effect at 11 o'clock in the morning of November 11th, 1918. This was "the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month" of 1918. Later, the Treaty of Versailles officially ended the war.

"The Great War" was the first war of the modern era, and the new weapons were shocking in their destructiveness. The front, where the opposing armies battled, was a "moonscape" of destruction. Green fields and forests were reduced to brown-gray mud, yet amid the devastated landscape and on the graves of soldiers, bright red poppies grew. These were European field poppies or "corn poppies". Their seeds can stay dormant or inactive for years, and then, when the earth is disturbed, they can come to life again. The blood-red poppy flourished in the torn-up battlefields and newly-dug graves on the western front.

A Canadian doctor, John McCrae, served as a field surgeon in Flanders, Belgium, during The Great War. He wrote the poem "In Flanders' Fields" on May 3, 1915, during the second battle of Ypres. He was taking a few minutes break from his duties at a first-aid post on the western front. Nearby was the grave of a close friend who had been killed the day before.

In Flanders' Fields

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
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders' Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders' Fields.

In January, 1918, McCrae was wounded, and he died a few weeks later of pneumonia in a British army hospital in France.

After the war, an American woman, Moira Michael, was inspired by McCrae's poem to start the tradition of wearing poppies to commemorate the sacrifice of military men and women in wartime. Wearing poppies for Remembrance Day soon became popular in the US, Canada, Britain, and France, and in English-speaking countries around the world.

Poppies for many years were made by disabled veterans (ex-soldiers, sailors, or airmen) who could do no other work, but now most poppies are manufactured by machine. In Canada, The Royal Canadian Legion uses the money raised from the sale of poppies to help ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen and their families.

This Remembrance Day, make a small donation and wear a poppy to show that you are thinking about the sacrifice of all soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women during wartime.

In Flanders' Fields, by John McCrae

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