In Britain and the Commonwealth of Countries, former territories of the British Empire, a red poppy worn on one's lapel is a reminder of the costs of war and those who died fighting those wars. In general, it's a show of support for the armed forces and the community that supports them.
Its use as a symbol of remembrance dates back to the Western Front of World War I, but the lore surrounding red poppies and their associations with soldiers dates back even further. The red corn poppy is a beautiful but resilient little flower, and has been dotting the churned and bloody battlefields for centuries.
The roots of the poppy's symbolism isn't just for the British and Commonwealth; its popularity stems from a Georgia university professor and her support for all war veterans.
By 1915, World War I's Western Front had ground into the horrors of trench warfare we remember the war for today. The German Army chose Ypres, in western Belgium, to test a new weapon meant to break the deadlock of the trenches: chlorine gas.
That first green cloud killed an estimated 1,100 to 5,000 French, British, Canadian, Belgian and imperial troops. The Germans gained little ground, pushing the Triple Entente allies just three miles closer to the town of Ypres. The town itself was destroyed by artillery fire, and the Second Battle of Ypres would last for a full month, causing nearly 100,000 casualties on both sides.
In the wake of Ypres, Canadian doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae was distraught at the loss of a good friend in the fighting. It wasn't long before the chewed-up earth of the Ypres battlefield began to bloom waves of red corn poppies, the sight of which inspired McCrae to write the immortal poem, "In Flanders Fields."
The red corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is an annual flower, meaning the flower grows for only one season, not to return unless replanted. Each flower, however, can spill hundreds of seeds that will germinate almost anywhere, including the disturbed earth of a scarred battlefield. They also grow and bloom relatively quickly in spring.
Since Dr. McCrae was treating the wounded in the days and weeks after the Second Battle of Ypres ended in May 1915, the former battleground was likely the perfect site for a poppy field. Yet, the kind of blooms the doctor saw that day had been popping up long before World War I.
Western Europe has been the setting for countless bloody battles and wars over the centuries. The red poppy McCrae wrote about in 1915 can be traced back even further, to the Napoleonic Wars, where red poppies seemed to sprout spontaneously, even around the bodies of dead soldiers.
When World War I broke out in 1914, American professor Moina Michael was in Germany and helped American tourists get back home during the war. Michael was a distant relative of the patriot fighter Francis Marion, who fought the British in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War. She was also the daughter of a Confederate war veteran.
After the United States entered World War I, she volunteered for the YWCA in New York City. When the war ended, she returned to Georgia, where she read "In Flanders Fields" in 1918. It inspired her to write her own poem "We Shall Keep the Faith" and to wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance.
At the University of Georgia, she taught classes of disabled war veterans. This experience led her to sell silk versions of the red poppy to raise money to support the veterans. It became so popular as a symbol, that it was adopted by the American Legion Auxiliary and what would become the Royal British Legion.
By Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) 1921, millions of silk poppies were sold across the United States and England to help Great War veterans with housing and to help them find jobs. Before long, the flowers were being manufactured by disabled war veterans themselves. Michael died in 1944, remembered as the "Poppy Lady" for her part in memorializing service members.
Today, the Royal British Legion still manufactures and warehouses poppies made by disabled veterans for the same purpose.
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