The Real Poppy of Flanders

Published Oct, 2021

Hill 60 1918

Diamond Creek district sent at least 153 men to fight in the First World War; some enlisted early and were at the Gallipoli landings and later served in France and Belgium. Most of those 153 men served during the campaigns in France and Belgium with 31 losing their lives, buried in war cemeteries and in unknown graves across the battlefields of Flanders’ Fields.

The real Poppy of Flanders with black cross and white tips.

The Legend of the Poppy.

 

The poppy legend originated in China. It was a white flowered plant from which a potent drug called opium was distilled and was called “The Flower of Forgetfulness.” Ghengis Khan, the Mongol warlord and his army brought some seeds of this plant westward during their attempt to conquer Europe. His soldiers would place one of these seeds under their tongue and suck on it as they rode on their long journey.

After a major battle fought against the Huns and the Galls in the region we now know as Flanders, and when the Mongol dead from this battle had long melted into the earth, a strange thing happened, the seed that the Mongol warriors had carried in their pockets germinated, but the flower came up red instead of white. It was found that on many of the battlefields, when everything else had been laid to waste, the landscape was soon ablaze with the blood-red blooms.

After the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the old Somme Battlefield early in 1917 (and again when the war was over) the land burst forth in a blaze of scarlet with patches of yellow charlock and white chamomile. But it was found that the poppy had taken on a further transformation; the center of the flower now had a black cross with white tips and many graves of those who were buried near the front line were soon marked by the poppy due to the seeds being released when the grave was being dug. Many unknown graves were discovered by digging where the poppy grew the thickest. Many of the fallen were able to be given a proper burial due to the poppy.

Attention was then drawn to the strange link between the poppy with battle and Lord Macauley suggested that it should be regarded as the flower of sacrifice and memorial.  Rose E. B. Coombs, MBE.

 

Red Poppies

 

The Flanders poppy has been part of Armistice or Remembrance Day ritual since the early 2910’s and is also increasingly being used as part of ANZAC Day observances. During the First World War, the red poppies were seen to be among the first living plants that sprouted from the devastation of the battlefields of northern France and Belgium. Soldiers’ folklore had it that the poppies were vivid red from having been nurtured in ground drenched with the blood of their comrades. The sight of the poppies on the battlefield at Ypres in 1915 moved Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae to write the poem In Flanders Fields. Flanders poppies also featured prominently in several other literary responses to the carnage of the Western Front. In English literature of the nineteenth century poppies had symbolised sleep or a state of oblivion; this symbolism was carried into the literature of the First World War, but a new, more powerful symbolism was now attached to the poppy – that of sacrifice of shed blood.

An American, Moira Michael, read McCrae’s poem and was so moved by it that she wrote a reply and decided to wear a red poppy was a way of keeping faith, as McCrae urged in his poem. Michael worked for the American YMCA and at a meeting of YMCA secretaries from other countries, held in November 1918, she discussed the poem and her poppies. Madame Guerin, the French YMCA secretary, was similarly inspired and she approached organisations throughout the allied nations to sell poppies to raise money for widows, orphans and needy veterans and their families.

The poppy soon became widely accepted throughout the allied nations as the flower of remembrance to be worn on Armistice Day. The Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League (the forerunner to the RSL) first sold poppies for Armistice Day in 1921. For this drive, the league imported one million silk poppies, made in French orphanages. Each poppy was sold for a shilling: five pence was donated to a charity for French children, six pence went to the league’s own welfare work and one penny went to the league’s national coffers. Today, the RSL sells poppies for Remembrance Day to raise funds for welfare work, although they have long since ceased to import them from France.

The poppy has also become very popular in wreaths used on ANZAC Day. An early use of the poppy on ANZAC Day was in 1940 in Palestine, where it grows in profusion in the spring. At the Dawn Service each soldier dropped a poppy as he filed past the Stone of Remembrance. A senior Australian officer also laid a wreath of poppies that had been picked from the hillside of Mt Scopus.

Now each year, poppies adorn the panels of the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour, pushed in beside names as small personal tribute to the memory of any one of the thousands of individuals commemorated there. This practice originates from a spontaneous gesture made by people waiting to pay their respects at the funeral of the Unknown Australian Soldier on the 11th November 1993. After the main service the public were invited to file through the Hall of Memory and lay a single flower by his tomb. To do this they had to queue along the cloisters, beside the Roll of Honour, and at the end of the day hundreds of RSL poppies were found to have been pushed into the cracks between the panels.

Lt. Col. John McCrae

Another Version of the poppy story.

 

The Red Poppy

 

On and around the 11th November each year, the RSL sells millions of red cloth poppies for Australians to pin on their lapels. Proceeds go to the RSL welfare work. Why a red poppy?

Colonel John McCrae, who was Professor of Medicine at McGill University in Canada before WW1 (joined the McGill faculty in 1900 after graduating from the University of Toronto), first described the red poppy, the Flanders’ poppy, as the flower of remembrance. Although he had been a doctor for years and had served in the Boer War as a gunner, but went to France on WW1 as a medical officer with the first Canadian contingent.

It was impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams, and the blood here, and Major John McCrae had seen and heard enough in his dressing station to last him a lifetime. As a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Major McCrae, had spent seventeen days treating injured men – Canadians, Australian, British, Indians, French, and Germans – in the Ypres salient of Belgium.

It had been an ordeal that he had hardly thought possible. Major McCrae later wrote of it:

“I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days …. Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done.”

One death particularly affected Major McCrae. A young friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on the 2nd May.

Lt. Helmer was buried later that day in the little cemetery outside McCrae’s dressing station, and McCrae had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain. The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station beside the Canal de l’Yser, just a few hundred yards north of Ypres, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. At the second battle of Ypres in 1915, when in charge of a small first-aid post, he wrote in pencil on a page from his despatch books poem that has come to be known as “Flanders’ Field” which described the poppies that marked the graves of soldiers killed fighting for their country. The major was no stranger to writing, having authored several medical texts besides dabbling in poetry. In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang us in the ditches in that part of Europe, and he spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook.

The spot where John McCrae wrote his Flanders Field Poem in 1915.

A young soldier watched him write it (written on May 3rd, 1915 after the 2nd Battle of Ypres). Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old Sergeant Major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae. The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the Sergeant Major stood there quietly . “His face was very tired but calm as we wrote,” Allinson recalled. “He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave.” When he finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO. Allinson was moved by what he read:

The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us both. The word blow was not used in the first line though it was used later when the poem later appeared in Punch. But it was used in the second last line. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle wast wind. It never occurred to me that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.

In fact, it was very nearly not published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer – either Lt. Col. Edward Morrison, the former Ottawa newspaper editor who commanded the 1st Brigade of artillery, or Lt. Col. J.M. Elder, depending on which source is consulted – retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. “The Spectator,” in London, rejected it but “Punch” published it on the 8th December 1915.

Essex Farm Dugouts on the bank of the Yser Canal about 2 miles north of Ypres where Major John McCrae treated the wounded and wrote his famous poem.

McCrae’s “In Flanders’ Fields” remains to this day one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is a lasting legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915.

Lt. Col. McCrae was wounded in May 1918 and was taken to one of the big hospitals on the coast of France. On the third evening he was wheeled to the balcony of his room to look over the sea towards the cliffs of Dover. The verses were obviously in his mind, for he said to the doctor “Tell them, if ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep.” That same night Lt. Col. John McCrae died.

Each Remembrance Day the British Legion lays a wreath on his grave – a tribute to a great man whose thoughts were always for others.

John McCrae's Grave at Wimereux Cemetery.

The wearing of the poppy to keep faith began when an American, Miss Moira Michael, read the poem “In Flanders‘ Field” and was so greatly impressed that she decided always to wear a poppy to keep the faith. Miss Michael wrote a reply after reading “In Flanders Field” entitled

Miss Michael worked for the YMCA in America and on Saturday the 9th November 1918, hosted a meeting of YMCA wartime secretaries from other countries. When several of the secretaries presented her with a small gift of money to thank her for her hospitality, she said she would spend it on poppies and told them the story of McCrae’s poem and her decision to always wear a red poppy.

The French secretary, Madame Guerin, conceived the idea of selling artificial poppies to raise money to help needy soldiers and their families, and she approached organisations among the countries of the world that had fought as allies in Europe to promote the concept. In England in 1919, the British Legion was formed to foster the interest of ex-servicemen and their dependants, and the late Field Marshal Earl Haig, the first Grand President, sought an emblem which would honour the dead and help the living. He adopted the Poppy as the emblem, and since then the Red Poppy has been accepted as the Emblem of Remembrance. The day chosen for the wearing of the emblems was the 11th November, a Day of Remembrance to honour the dead of both World Wars, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam and now the Gulf conflicts.

The League adopted the idea in 1921, announcing, “The Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia and other Returned Soldiers Organisations throughout the British Empire and Allied Countries have passed resolutions at their international conventions to recognise the Poppy of Flanders’ Fields as the international memorial flower to be worn on the anniversary of Armistice Day.

“In adopting the Poppy of Flanders’ Fields as the Memorial Flower to be worn by all Returned Soldiers on the above mentioned day, we recognise that no emblem so well typifies the Fields whereon was fought the greatest war in the history of the world nor sanctifies so truly the last resting place of our brave dead who remain in France.”

The Returned Sailors and Soldiers of Australia join their comrades of the British Empire and Allied Countries in asking people of Australia to wear the poppy; firstly in memory of our sacred dead who rest in Flanders’ Fields; secondly to keep alive the memories of the sacred cause for which they 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 battle ground.”

The little silk poppies which are to be worn on Armistice Day are an exact replica in size and colour of the Poppies that bloom in Flanders’ Fields. These poppies have been made by the war orphans in the devastated regions of France and have been shipped to Australia this year for Armistice Day.”

The League bought one million poppies from France to sell on the 11th November 1921 at one shilling each. Five pence per poppy was to go back to France towards a fund for the children of the devastated areas of France, with sixpence per poppy being retained by each State branch and one penny going to the national office. The League kept up this practice for several years, and of course kept the tradition of selling poppies to mark the 11th November and raise money for welfare work, even when the poppies were no longer obtained from France. Poppies now sold in Australia are often made locally by League members themselves.

Although the Red Poppy of Flanders is a symbol of modern times, legend has it that the poppy goes back even to the time of the famous Mongol leader, Genghis Khan, as the flower associated with human sacrifice. In the 12th and early 13th centuries, the Mongol Emperor led his warrior hordes on campaigns south to the conquest of India, and west to envelop Russia as far as the shores of the Black Sea. The modern story of the poppy is, of course, no legend. It is a page of history to which many thousands still with us can testify.

Polygon Wood after its capture by the Australians in 1917. The Buttes can be seen top right.
Same pill box in Polygon wood today. Known as Scotts Post.
The Buttes today with the 5th Australian Division Memorial on top of it. The cemetery is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Buttes New British Cemetery.

The Buttes New British Cemetery holds the graves of four of our local men.

The battlefield near Passchendeale October 1917.
The fields of Flanders today.

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