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Wreath of Artificial Poppies
Botanical Poppy

In April 1917 the United States entered what is now known as World War I in alliance with the Britain, France, and Russia  against the Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. According to Americans favoring intervention in the predominantly European war, this war would Make the World Safe for Democracy as well as being the War to End All Wars. These inaccurate predictions made nice slogans for the first major mechanized war complete with aircraft, machine guns, tanks, and chemical gasses. The loss of life was immense, and the Remembrance Poppy became an international symbol for the human sacrifices made on the field of battle.

Red poppies, the Palaver rhoeas, have been associated with battles from at least the Napoleonic war when a writer observed poppies growing over soldiers’ graves. After the battle at Ypres, the increased lime content in the surface soil left the poppy as the rare plant that could survive.

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae

When World War I broke out John McCrae, a physician from Guelph, Ontario, volunteered as a gunner and medical officer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. McCrae fought in the Second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium. German troops attacked French positions north of the Canadian forces with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915, but could not break through the Canadian line. When the battle ended the Canadians had suffered 6,000 casualties.

During the battle, McCrae treated the wounded in a bunker along the Yser Canal near Ypres. After McCrae’s friend was killed, McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields on May 3, 1915. The poem appeared in the magazine Punch the following December.

Illustrated 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 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.

Buy Victory Bonds poster

McCrae’s heartfelt poem with its pathos and emphasis on remembering those who sacrificed their lives on the field of battle quickly became popular and was used in military recruitment and war bond drives.

America Joins the Fray

In April 1917 when the United States declared war, Moina Michael (1869-1944) was a professor at the University of Georgia where she taught courses in education. The fact that Michael had a university decree and was a member of the University of George faculty is evidence of a determined woman.

In November 1918, inspired by McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, Michael wrote the poem We Shall Keep the Faith and vowed to wear a red poppy every day as a symbol of remembrance for all who served in the war.

We Shall Keep the Faith

Soldier tending graves near Ypres

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet — to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With all who died.

We cherish, too the Poppy red
that grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

postage stamp for Moina Michael

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields

After the war ended in 1918, Michael returned to her faculty position. The University of Georgia had become a center for rehabilitating disabled veterans, many of whom she met in her classes. Michael also attended Disabled American Veterans chapter meetings. Michael recognized that the need for funds to pay financial support for families of those men killed in the war as well as assisting disabled veterans.

Michael distributed silk poppies to everyone she knew and launched a campaign for organizations to adopt the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who suffered during and after the war. Veterans classified as unfit for employment with the government due to their war injuries made the poppies.

American Legion poppy sales 1924

In 1920 the American Legion Auxiliary officially adopted the Remembrance Poppy as its official flower. Madam E. Guérin attended the 1920 American Legion convention and returned to France inspired to sell silk poppies to raise funds for war orphans. Guérin also sent poppy sellers to London ahead of Armistice Day on November 11. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, co-founder of The Royal British Legion, supported their sale, and Remembrance Poppies spread throughout the British empire where they remain a strong presence on Remembrance Day, November 11.

The American Legion Auxiliary sponsors National Poppy Day the Friday before Memorial Day when a red poppy is worn to honor those who have died in military service and those who have served in the American military. In 2016 nearly 3.5 million American Legion Poppies were distributed, raising $2.1 million for American veterans.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

— From For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, 1914

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Sandra’s Books: Ambition, Arrogance & PrideSaxon HeroinesTwo CoinsRama’s Labyrinth.

Illustrations & A Few Sources

Artificial poppies by Andrew Dunn, 2004; Papaver rhoeas by France Eugene Köhler, 1897; John McCrae, 1918; Illustrated In Flanders Fields, 1921; Buy Victory Bonds by Frank Lucien Nicolet, 1918; Soldier tending graves near Ypres by John Warwick Brooke, 1917; Postage Stamp for Moina Michael; Advertisement for American Legion Auxiliary, 1924; Red Poppy, 2005. Sara Freehand. “The Poppy Lady: Moina Michael started a movement for veterans.” UGA Today. Nov 5 2017.


Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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