On a recent visit to the UK, we took a trip to the Tower of London to see the 888,246 ceramic poppies planted in the Tower’s moat, each poppy representing a British military fatality during the war. This made me wonder how the poppy became the international symbol of remembrance for the fallen of World War I.
It began on Saturday morning, 9th November 1918, two days before the Armistice was declared. Moina Michael was on duty at the YMCA headquarters in New York. This was a place where servicemen would gather with friends and family to say their goodbyes before they went on overseas duty. During the morning, a young soldier left a copy of the “Ladies Home Journal” on Moina’s desk. As Moina browsed through the magazine, she came across a poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. The words and images of beautiful red poppies among the death and destruction of the Western Front deeply moved her and she made a pledge to wear a red poppy as an emblem for keeping the faith with those who died.
During the day, some men attending a conference at the HQ asked Moina to accept $10 in appreciation of her effort to brighten the place with flowers at her own expense. She was touched, showed them the poem and said she would buy twenty-five red poppies with the money. The delegates took the poem back into the Conference. Moina found the small artificial red silk poppies in a department store and when she returned to the YMCA she gave the poppies to the delegates and kept one for herself. According to Moina, since this group had given her the money with which to buy them, she considered that she had made her first sale of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy on 9th November 1918.
Moina Michael was determined to put all her energy towards getting the Poppy adopted as a national memorial symbol in the United States and began a tireless campaign at her own expense, starting with a letter to her congressional representative in which she asked him to put the idea to the War Department, which he did. She wanted to act quickly so that this new emblem might be ready for the signing of the peace treaty at Versailles in June 1919.
In March 1919, Moina moved back to her home state of Georgia. She taught a class of disabled servicemen and learnt first-hand about their needs. She realised that while the memory of those who died needed to be honoured there were thousands of ex-servicemen who were returning home with mental and physical needs that also needed support. This gave her the impetus to widen the scope of the Memorial Poppy idea to assist all servicemen who needed help for themselves and their families.
By 1920, Moina Michael was beginning to lose hope that the Memorial Poppy idea would ever come to fruition. However, in August 1920 she learned that the Georgia Department of the American Legion was to meet in Atlanta. Before the convention, she approached the delegates and subsequently the Legion adopted the Memorial Poppy and agreed to have their members wear a red poppy on 11th November. A month later, the National American Legion agreed on the use of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy as the United States’ national emblem of Remembrance.
A french woman Anna Guérin attended the National American Legion’s convention and was inspired by Moina’s idea. When she returned to France, Anna got a team of French women to make artificial poppies, her intention was that these could be sold and the proceeds could be used to help fund the restoration of the war-torn regions of France. Anna was determined to introduce the idea of the memorial poppy to the nations that had been Allied with France during the First World War.
In 1921, Anna Guérin first introduced the British Legion in London to the Memorial Poppy and the first British Poppy Day Appeal was launched that year, in the run up to 11th November 1921. Since that time, the red poppy has been sold each year by The British Legion from mid October to raise funds in support of the organisation’s charitable work.
In 1922, the Poppy Factory was established in the Old Kent Road, London. In 1933, the demand for poppies was such that the Poppy Factory had to move to larger premises in Surrey. The demand for poppies continued to grow each year and today the Poppy Factory is producing nearly 40 million poppies for wreaths, sprays and buttonholes.