We Brits wear a poppy blooming on our lapels every year for Remembrance Day, which commemorated the end of the First World War initially, and we show our respect by buying a poppy to honour those who fell during battle. It marks the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour – with a 2 minute silence being observed at 11 am. Nowadays this includes World War 2, the Falklands War, the Gulf War, and more recent conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
I wondered how it all began, and apparently it was an idea first thought of by an American lady (well, I didn't know that!) called Moina Michael, who was a professor and humanitarian who had visited Europe during the start of WW1 and had been in Germany in July 1914. She travelled to Rome in her efforts to get home, and while there, she assisted around 12,000 US tourists to seek passage back home.
Cutting a long story short, on 9 November 1918, inspired by Canadian John McCrae’s battlefront poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, she wrote a poem called ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’ in tribute to the opening lines of McCrae's poem – ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses row on row,’ and she vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war, the poppy being a symbol of life after death.
Her silk poppies inspired Anna Guérin, a French woman involved in the French artificial flower trade, who founded the idea of the Remembrance Poppy and went on to sell poppies in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain. The first ‘Haig Fund’ was launched in 1921 using artificial poppies made by women and children in devastated areas of France, and raised £106,000. Anna Guérin persuaded Earl Haig, the UK’s Commander-in-Chief and president of The British Legion, to adopt the poppy as The British Legion’s fundraising symbol. The first ‘Poppy Day’ was such a success that demand far outstripped the supply of poppies made in France, so Haig needed to look for a British supplier.
Here enters the British connection – Major George Howson, who was a British Army officer during WW1, pledged that the Disabled Society could supply The British Legion with poppies for the charity, the Haig Fund. His vision was to give paid work to British veterans wounded in the First World War, and the workforce grew until eventually they were taken over by machines making paper poppies to be sold by the British Legion. They outgrew their premises on the Old Kent Road in London, and The Poppy Factory moved to the Lansdown Brewery site in Richmond, using funds donated by Howson, and the factory remains there today. The location was carefully chosen in order to give help and rehabilitation to servicemen injured after the War, and accommodation and amenities were provided on-site to help the wounded and their families. Today the Poppy Factory still provides employment support for sick and injured veterans, and now makes approximately 36 million poppies a year, exporting poppies and wreaths to over 120 countries outside the UK, mainly for ex-pats living abroad.
In 1928, Major Howson founded the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey, a two-week memorial event for veterans and members of the public to pay their respects to those who have lost their lives in battle. The Field is still held every year and is opened on the Thursday before Remembrance Sunday.
I know this may not be relevant to a lot of readers, but the history of wearing the poppy might be of interest. Wars still continue, so maybe we should all acknowledge the suffering of so many around the world by wearing a poppy.