The Poppy, a Symbol of Remembrance

I took this photograph November 2012 at Westminster Abbey. People honor their loved ones by including their names on a cross as memorial. 

I took this photograph November 2012 at Westminster Abbey. People honor their loved ones by including their names on a cross as memorial. 

Today the United States honors our country's veterans with Veterans Day, but have you ever wondered why it is celebrated on November 11th? 

November 11th is an important date in history. It was on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 that the First Great War (aka World War I) ended, the end of “the war to end all wars.” (Technically speaking the end of the war occurred on June 28, 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles, but we honored the day that fighting stopped, the day the armistice was put into place - November 11th). Today in the Commonwealth, November 11th holds many names: Armistice Day, Poppy Day, or as it has become to be known: Remembrance Day. November 11th was first remembered by President Woodrow Wilson: "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"

Though it was previously celebrated in America on May 13, 1938, November 11th was proclaimed a legal holiday— Armistice Day, but 1954 the word Armistice was replaced with the word Veteran to honor all who served in our nationals' wars. This change went into effect on June 1, 1954. In the United Kingdom they celebrate their Veterans Day - Armed Forces' Day - on June 27th.

Today in the Commonwealth countries they will don artifical red poppies and attend memorials to those who have fallen. The year 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. There is a ceramic installation by Paul Cummins at the Tower of London that is both breathtaking and heartbreaking (when you think of all the lives that were lost). Titled “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” the final work will consist of 888,246 red ceramic flowers (the last of the poppies will "bloom" today on Remembrance day) — each poppy represents a British or Colonial military fatality from World War I. (Side note: all the ceramic poppies have been sold - each for £25 each. The proceeds will be equally shared amongst a group of carefully selected Service charities including the Royal British Legion.)

There are many ways to approach the topic of Remembrance Day, but I decided to focus on the poppy and what is represents. The concept of the poppy is central to the poem In Flanders Fields (written on May 3, 1915 / published in Punch on December 8, 1915) by the Canadian Army's Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) after his experience in the Second Battle of Ypres (21 April – 25 May 1915):

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.

The first official Legion Poppy Day was held in Britain on November 11, 1921. Poppy Appeal is the simple act of buying and wearing a handmade poppy. However it represents a good deal more. In 1921, French Secretary Madame Guerin suggested that artificial poppies should be made and sold for the purpose to help ex-Servicemen and their families. In 1921, the poppies were purchased from French organizations and the funds supported children in areas devastated from war. In that year they raised £106,000 through the Poppy Appeal. 

Field Marshal Earl Haig and Founder-President of the British Legion ("The Royal" prefix was added in 1971) made the Poppy Appeal an important backbone to the Legion to aid all service men and women and their families in times of need. Ex-Servicemen also worked in the factories making poppies (the Legion had their own Poppy Factory), a practice which started in 1922 with five disabled ex-servicewomen. According to 2010 statistics: there are 50 ex-service men and women employed to manufacture 27 million artificial poppies, 113,000 wreaths, and 800,000 Remembrance crosses.

The money earned from the poppy sales helps bereaved families, wounded service men and women, younger veterans seeking employment and housing, and older veterans needing age-related care.

Films by British Pathé : Importance of Poppies During World War II

According to the Royal British Legion:

The Poppy Appeal has existed for over 90 years and continues to provide aid to former service men and women and I was able to find a few archival images of some of the men and women who have made and sold poppies over the years. Whether you live in a Commonwealth country or the States, I hope you take time today to remember those who have served in the armed forces.