November 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War. Remembrance Sunday, as it is known in the United Kingdom, honors those who have sacrificed themselves to secure and protect freedom. The event culminates with the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph war memorial in London's Whitehall. First instituted by King George in 1919, the nation observes a two-minute silence to honor "The Glorious Dead."
If you view the ceremony, you will no doubt notice the ubiquitous poppy flowers that adorn the lapels of the dignitaries and crowds. How did the poppy come to symbolize the act of honoring a nation's war dead? The answer reveals a connection to Canada and the United States, touching on the collective sacrifice of Allied powers in one of the world's deadliest wars.
The common or “corn” poppy grows throughout the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe and is native to the Mediterranean region. Its seeds need light to grow, so when they're buried in the earth, they can lay dormant for 80 years or even longer without blooming. Once soil is disturbed and the seeds come to light, poppies nobody knew existed can then bloom.
The Second Battle of Ypres took place in the Flanders region of Belgium, with thousands of dormant poppy seeds below the ground. By virtue of the fact that trench warfare, bombs and artillery disturbed the landscape, fields of blood-red poppies sprung up in a sort of natural memorialization of war's tragedy. A Canadian doctor named John McCrae noted the phenomenon and wrote the now-iconic poem, 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.
After first invoking the pity of death during wartime, the poem gives readers a chance to fight against that horror by catching and holding the “torch.”
That mythic torch was picked up by an American professor named Moina Belle Michael. She was active during the war, volunteering with the YWCA. Two days before the end of the war, Moina read John McCrae's poem and vowed to wear a poppy every day of her life in remembrance of the soldiers who paid the ultimate price.
After the war, she returned to the University of Georgia to teach. While working with disabled veterans in her classes, she conceived of an idea to sell poppy pins to raise funds to assist disabled servicepersons. Her idea was eventually adopted by the American Legion Auxiliary and the Royal British Legion, as well as other Commonwealth countries around the world.
The library is commemorating Armistice Day by distributing poppy seeds at our upcoming WWI programs.
Thursday, Nov. 15, 3-4 p.m. @ Ross-University Hills
Tuesday, Nov. 13, 6-7:30 p.m. @ Central Library, Vida Ellison Gallery
Questions? Log into the library's Ask Us! chat service to find out more about Armistice Day and the commemorative poppy.
I have been an American Legion Auxiliary member since I was a toddler. Each year in May grade school students would make 'poppy posters' remembering those that served, see 2017-18 winners at https://www.alaforveterans.org/Programs/Poppy-Poster-Winners/ We as junior members would be out in our community selling poppies. The American Legion Auxiliary will be celebrating it's 100th birthday throughout 2019-2020 administrative year.