Each year in early November, we are encouraged to wear red poppies in remembrance of the men and women of the armed forces.
Men and women who have given their lives for this country in both World Wars and, although this is not always mentioned, in the other conflicts in which British servicemen and women have been engaged in the past hundred years … the Korean War, the Gulf Wars and in Afghanistan, to mention but three. Most people are aware that the red poppies are sold in aid of the Royal British Legion, an organisation which exists to help the families of service personnel who have been killed in action and to help service personnel who have been wounded in the course of their duty.
Not everyone, however, is aware of why the red poppy was chosen as the visible symbol for this act of remembrance; and not many people would know the significance of the name John Macrae. In 1915, Dr. John Macrae, a young Canadian surgeon, was serving in a field hospital in Flanders, where quite literally millions … yes, millions … of men and women died during the long, bitter campaign as the British forces and their allies battled to overcome the Kaiser’s army. For many long months neither side could gain the upper hand and an appalling casualty rate was experienced by both sides as men were ordered to advance on machine gun positions and the mud-filled trenches in which they lived were shelled on a daily basis, not to say an hourly basis. As well as the shocking numbers who were killed, of course, far greater numbers were wounded; and Dr. Macrae was one of the huge number of doctors, nurses and nursing auxiliaries who served in the field hospitals near the front line.
Looking out over the battlefields, Macrae saw tens of thousands of red Flanders poppies blooming over the graves and among the trenches of the Allied lines and felt moved to write a poem, “On Flanders Field,” which closes with the lines: “If ye break faith with us who die, / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.” The allusion to sleep refers, of course, to the sleep-inducing qualities of the opium poppy, a cousin to the plants that grew in Flanders, which have no narcotic properties. The poem became very well known after it was published in Punch, and an American poetess, Moina Michael, published a further poem inspired by Macrae’s lines and began to wear a red poppy “to keep faith with those who died.”
After the war, in 1921, the British Legion … now the Royal British Legion … began to sell poppies to raise funds to benefit ex-servicemen and their families. The first Remembrance Day poppies were imported from France, but soon a small workshop was established in London to manufacture artificial poppies to meet the growing demand. Staffed originally by a handful of ex-servicemen, the poppy factory grew and grew, employing only ex-servicemen until comparatively recently. To this day, the Poppy Appeal raises substantial sums of money to help ex-servicemen and their families and to help us all to remember the millions who have lost their lives fighting for our country and for us.
Sadly, the unwarranted and unwanted practice of wearing a white poppy has appeared in recent years, the white poppy supposedly advertising the wearer’s opposition to war in any form for any reason. We should none of us ever forget that the service personnel who fight on our behalf are not asked to decide whether they are in favour of a particular war or opposed to it. They obey orders … and many are killed or suffer serious injury in the conflict. We should be remembering their sacrifice, not playing politics with our poppies in the days leading up the November 11, the anniversary of the official ending of the so-called Great War in 1918.
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society