Since World War I, the red poppy has been a symbol of remembrance and a way of honoring those who served and lost their lives in war. Veterans groups such as the American Legion distribute millions of red crepe paper poppies and encourage people to wear them on National Poppy Day, which is the Friday before Memorial Day each year.
But how did the red poppy become such an iconic flower?
The fierce artillery battles and trench warfare on the Western Front of WWI, in the Flanders region of Belgium, decimated the landscape. In 1915, the second year of the war, soldiers began taking note of the red flowers that sprang up in the killing fields all around them. They must have seemed like a miracle.
Common poppies, Papaver rhoeas, need light to germinate, and can lay dormant for 80 years or more until the soil is disturbed. Lime from destroyed buildings and nitrogen from bombs fertilized them, and they began to bloom in abundance.
In the spring of 1915, Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving as a medical officer for the 1st Canadian Field Artillery, sat overlooking a mass grave site. He took out pen and paper and wrote what would become one of the most enduring poems of World War I, “In Flanders Fields.”
“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 above the guns below …”
McCrae’s poem was first published in Punch Magazine and widely reprinted.
A YMCA war volunteer, Moina Michael, had seen the poem before. But in November of 1918, two days before the Armistice was declared, she ran across it again. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the red poppy. In her autobiography, The Miracle Flower, she described the moment as a “full spiritual experience,” in which she “vowed always to wear a red poppy … as a sign of remembrance.”
Moina Michael’s idea quickly gained support from the YMCA, the American Legion and its Auxiliary, and the Veterans Of Foreign Wars. The Legion adopted the poppy as its flower in 1920, and in 1924 created a national program to distribute red poppies annually. In 2017, Congress formally declared the Friday before Memorial Day as “National Poppy Day.”
American Legion poppies are named in honor of this century-long movement to keep alive the memories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Read more about the history of the red poppy on our blog.
We hope you will take time this Memorial Day weekend to reflect on the meaning of the red poppy and the sacrifices of military veterans and their families.
We thank them for their sacrifice and for their service. #putnamsheriffNY #putnamcountyNY #memorialday2021 #veterans