By Rod Gallagher, Wonthaggi RSL
In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row…
THE red poppy was the inspiration for the Canadian Doctor, Colonel John McCrae, to write this poignant poem following the death of his friend and student, Alex Helmer who was killed on May 2, 1915.
In 1918, in response to McCrae’s poem, American humanitarian Moina Michael wrote: “And now the torch and poppy red, we wear in honour of our dead…”.
She campaigned to make the poppy a symbol of remembrance of those who had died in the war.
For many religions and from ancient times, the red poppy has symbolised death as a period of tranquil slumber. Themes of resurrection and immortality (salvation of the soul) blossom as the poppy (and the spirit) never really die, just renew and ascend.
Worn on Remembrance Day each year, the red poppies were among the first flowers to bloom in the devastated battlefields of northern France and Belgium in the First World War. In soldiers’ folklore, the vivid red of the poppy came from the blood of their comrades soaking the ground.
The use of the red poppy can be attributed first to Madame Guérin of the French Red Cross who raised funds during World War One for widows, orphans, veterans, US Liberty bonds, and charities such as the Red Cross and Food for France.
After the armistice that ended World War One, the French government formed ‘La Ligue des Enfants de France et d’Amérique’ (The Children’s League of France and America), a charity which used a poppy as its emblem.
Madame Guérin created the American branch of this charity, called the ‘American and French Children’s League’.
In England, in 1919, the British Legion sought an emblem that would honour the dead and help the living.
Artificial poppies were first sold in Britain in 1921 to raise money for the Earl Haig Fund in support of ex-servicemen and the families of those who had died in the conflict.
The poppies were supplied by Anna Guérin. The Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal caused some controversy, with some — including British Army veterans – arguing that the symbol was being used excessively to marshal support for British military campaigns and that public figures were pressured to wear the poppies.
By 1922, the British Legion had founded a factory staffed by ex-servicemen with disability to produce its own red poppy. Australia and other dominion nations commenced using the red poppy in 1921. The red poppy was then internationally adopted as the emblem of Remembrance.
Today we wear a red poppy on Remembrance Day for three reasons. First, in the memory of the sacred dead who rest in Flanders’ Fields. Secondly, to keep alive the memories of the sacred cause of freedom and the right to choose a life without interference for which our soldiers laid down their lives; and thirdly, as a bond of esteem and affection between the soldiers of all allied nations, and in respect for France, our common battleground.
In the modern world of today some people find this tradition trite, even warmongering. But this tradition still remains the singular important way of reminding our politicians and the elite of our world, both business and academic, to carefully consider any decisions that commit the lives of others, mainly young people, to a course of sacrifice. Since World War Two, very few of this section of our community have chosen to lead from the front.