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Why Red Poppies on Memorial Day?

Why Red Poppies on Memorial Day?

Why Red Poppies on Memorial Day?

You may see them in front of your supermarket or at a small town parade, elderly men and women handing out red paper poppies. I strongly suspect that the youth of today and maybe even their folks have no idea why red paper poppies are associated with Memorial Day. Let’s hop in the WABAC Machine, shall we?

The execrable President Woodrow Wilson and U.S. Congress were finally forced into World War I by the sinking of the cargo ship Housatonic in February, 1917. Europe had been mired in The Great War since 1914. Wasn’t our war and we aren’t the world’s police, right? The German had killed hundreds of American in the sinking of unarmed liners. But, finally, we engaged.

Most, but certainly not all, of the United States fighting forces in World War I had never been to Europe. Travel was expensive and took a long time. Not to mention, if one wanted to eat and have a bed, one had to work. The life of the average American then was rather narrow. Imagine then the sights that these young men saw and the horrible war machine that Germany had created. The machine gun and the use of mustard gas changed warfare into slaughter. The soldiers were in a foreign land and engaged in trench warfare.

Where did the poppies come in? Read this account from The Great War:

The spring of 1915 was the first time that warm weather began to warm up the countryside after the cold winter at war in 1914-1915. In the region around Ypres in Belgian Flanders the months of April and May 1915 were unusually warm. Farmers were ploughing their fields close up to the front lines and new life was starting to grow. One of the plants that began to grow in clusters on and around the battle zones was the red field or corn poppy (it’s species name is: papaver rhoeas). It is often to be found in or on the edges of fields where grain is grown.

The field poppy is an annual plant which flowers each year between about May and August. It’s seeds are disseminated on the wind and can lie dormant in the ground for a long time. If the ground is disturbed from the early spring the seeds will germinate and the poppy flowers will grow.

It was the poppies that inspired a Canadian soldier, Lt. Colonel John McCrae to write a poem after a friend died in battle in Ypres. That poem is “In Flanders Fields”.

The United State finally enters the war and although the U.S. took many casualties, the war began to turn against the Germans. Professor Moina Belle Michaels took a leave of absence from the University of George to volunteer for the Red Cross in New York City. Although she had read “In Flanders Fields” many times before, it was while in New York City she was inspired to write her own poem “We Shall Keep the Faith”. After she returned to teaching at the University of Georgia Professor Michael got the idea of selling red paper poppies to fund programs and buy necessities for veterans. It became her life’s calling and passion.

The American Legion adopted the poppy as its symbol in 1920 and began selling the poppies in 1924:

Led by the American Legion Auxiliary, each year members of The American Legion Family distribute poppies with a request that the person receiving the flower make a donation to support the future of veterans, active-duty military personnel and their families with medical and financial needs.

France, England, New Zealand and Australia have since the 1920’s come to adopt the poppy as a symbol of bravery and sacrifice on the field of battle.

Now that you know the story of those red paper poppies, please pass it on. And, the next time you receive a poppy make sure to make a donation the American Legion or your veteran’s group of choice.

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  • Usalien says:

    Lt Col McCrae, while in the military, was a doctor, not a soldier. He tragically died before the war’s end. Growing up in Guelph, Ontario (his birthplace), we would have an assembly every Remembrance Day where his poem would be read. It stunned me later that his poem was known outside of our little city. It stuns me even more that some consider it a pro war poem when it is clearly not. Thank you all vets of all nations that fought on the side of freedom against tyranny.

  • Jose Maria Ruiz says:

    …”France, England, New Zealand and Australia have since the 1920’s come to adopt the poppy as a symbol of bravery and sacrifice on the field of battle…” you forgot Canada.

  • I visited Ypres in 2015 with British friends and we visited a number of the British military cemeteries. I had a friend take my photo standing at the grave of Revere Osler, the son of the professor of medicine at Oxford, who was killed in 1917. His father never recovered from the loss.

    The red poppies are usually worn on Remembrance Day, November 11. I was allowed to sit in Westminster Abbey with the Royal Army Medical Corps on Remembrance Day about ten years ago.

  • Tim Wolter says:

    I’m actually on a salvage dig right now in Flanders where a WWI battlefield site is being explored in a crowdfunded dig. Only another six weeks before the excavation is done and the site is developed. No poppies this time of year. But plenty of other poignant reminders of the folly of 1914. So much death and fire in this very small area……

    Tim Wolter

  • David R Byler says:

    Red poppies on Monte Cassino
    Instead of dew, drank Polish blood.
    As the soldier crushed them in falling,
    For the anger was more potent than death.
    Years will pass and ages will roll,
    But traces of bygone days will stay,
    And the poppies on Monte Cassino
    Will be redder having quaffed Polish blood.

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