The Story of the Poppy

Poppy Day

Poppy Day, when the South African Legion holds a street collection to gather funds to assist in the welfare work among military veterans, takes place on the Saturday nearest to Remembrance Day.

When one buys a poppy on Poppy Day one pays tribute to those who died, and one is helping those who are left and bear the scars of war.

The Red Poppy’s story

During the First World War (1914–1918) much of the fighting took place in Western Europe, mainly in France and Belgium. The rolling plains of the Somme in France and around Ypres in Belgium was transformed into a network of dug trenches and fortifications as two massive armies stood in opposition to one another. This stunning countryside was blasted, bombed with such ferocity that it became a muddy, treeless barren landscape – a living hell.

Only one plant survived – Bright red Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas) with their delicate but resilient flowers – and they flourished in their thousands amid the mud and shattered earth.

In May 1915, a Canadian doctor, Lt Col John McCrae was so inspired by the sight of poppies growing from the rapidly interned soldiers graves amid all the destruction that he penned his famous poem called ‘In Flanders Fields’. Initially crumpling up the poem and throwing it away, his men found it and urged him to send it to newspaper and magazine publishers, the rest is a remarkable twist of history.

Once published in public domain John McCrae’s poem in turn inspired an American academic, Moina Michael to make and sell red silk poppies which were then brought to England to raise funds and help returning veterans and their families with employment, medical aid, housing etc. The (Royal) British Legion, ordered millions of the poppies which were sold during the very first armistice day commemorations on 11 November. This practice was also adopted by the Legion family the world over, including The South African Legion, and continues to this day.

The Poem

IN FLANDERS FIELDS by Lt Col John McCrae

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.

Lt Col John McCrae unfortunately did not survive the war, on January 28, 1918, while still commanding No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne, McCrae died of pneumonia. He was buried the following day in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of Wimereux Cemetery, with full military honours.

 


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