Why were the poppies of Flanders Fields so numerous? And how did they become the symbol of remembrance?
Were the fields of Flanders always covered in poppies?
Not to such an extent as during the First World War. Actually, and quite surprisingly, in the early years of the 20th century there were hardly any poppies in the fields of Flanders, Belgium. At least nothing like there were by the end of the First World War.
The reason for their comparative absence is that the soils of Flanders and the north-west of France were fairly poor. The corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) thrives on richly manured, ploughed land. One British soldier remarked in 1914 that the fields in the area of the Somme (in northern France) were far poorer for poppies than his native Norfolk in England.
When did the poppies of Flanders Fields first appear in huge numbers?
It was in the second year of the war – in 1915 – that the first records appeared in letters sent home of no-man’s land being “ablaze” with scarlet poppies. From this time onwards, letters written by soldiers constantly referred to the fields of poppies, and featured heavily in soldier’s poems. Such as this one by Lieutenant-Colonel W. Campbell Galbraith.
RED POPPIES IN THE CORN
I’ve seen them in the morning light,
When white mists drifted by.
I’ve seen them in the dusk o’ night
Glow ‘gainst the starry sky.
The slender waving blossoms red,
Mid yellow fields forlorn.
A glory on the scene they shed,
Red Poppies in the Corn.
I’ve seen them, too, those blossoms red,
Show ‘gainst the Trench lines’ screen.
A crimson stream that waved and spread
Thro’ all the brown and green.
I’ve seen them dyed a deeper hue
Than ever nature gave,
Shell-torn from slopes on which they grew
To cover many a grave.
Bright blossoms fair by nature set
Along the dusty ways,
You cheered us, in the battle’s fret,
Thro’ long and weary days.
You gave us hope: if fate be kind,
We’ll see that longed-for morn,
When home again we march and find
Red Poppies in the Corn.
Lieutenant-Colonel W. Campbell Galbraith (1917)
Did poppies appear on other battlefields?
Yes, particularly on the Gallipoli peninsula in Ottoman Turkey. Allied troops landed here on 25th April 1915. The objective was to capture the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and knock Ottoman Turkey out of the war.
Trench warfare quickly took hold at Gallipoli, mirroring the fighting taking place on the Western Front. After eight months of heavy fighting, the Allies withdrew, in January 1916. It was a major Allied failure and a defining moment for the nation of Turkey.
Anyway, by the time the Allies left, whole swathes of the area were covered in poppies. A valley south of Anzac beach was named Poppy Valley.
Why did so many poppies appear during the First World War?
This is the key question, isn’t it? The war created prime conditions for poppies to flourish in Flanders and north-west France (and Gallipoli). Continual bombardment disturbed the soil and brought the seeds to the surface. They were fertilized by nitrogen in the explosives and lime from the shattered rubble of the buildings.
Most poignantly, the blood and the bones of the millions of men, horses, donkeys, dogs and other animals richly fertilized the soil.
The longer the war continued, the more men and animals died. The more men and animals died, the more the poppies thrived.
When did the poppy become the flower of remembrance?
It all started with Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian medical doctor. In May 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres he was working in a dressing station alongside the Yprelee Canal.
On 2nd May his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of the Canadian Field Artillery was blown to bits by an artillery bombardment. As many of Helmer’s body parts as possible were somehow gathered and buried at Essex Farm Cemetery. At the funeral, McCrae stood in for the chaplain and took the service. Later that day when he came off duty, McCrae sat on the back of an ambulance and, looking over the fresh graves and the wild poppies, penned a 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.
John McCrae (1917)
In Flanders Fields was published on 8th December 1915 in Punch and became an immediate sensation in the trenches and around the English-speaking world. The poppy became the symbol of the war dead. It was seen as representing the souls of those who died between 1914 and 1918, transformed into a million blood-red flowers.
What’s the origin of the wreath of artificial poppies?
John McCrae did not survive the war, dying of pneumonia on 28th January 1918 while commanding No. 3 Canadian General Hospital in Boulogne. His friends and comrades, unable to find wild poppies to lay on his grave, ordered a wreath of artificial poppies from Paris.
Was the poppy already an emblem of death?
Yes. Archaeologists exploring a cave in Spain in 1935 found baskets of poppy capsules laid beside human remains dating back to 4000 BC. On a 3,000-year-old statue from Minoan Crete, a Poppy Goddess statue wears an opium poppy headdress. According to classical Greek myths, poppies flowered along the banks of the River Lethe which flowed to Hades, and from which the dead had to drink to forget their former existence in the world of the living. Its petals are the color of blood, and the opium poppy is a source of morphine, a powerful painkiller which made the physical agonies of war more bearable, and which was a derivative of opium.
What’s the origin of the sale of poppies?
McCrae’s poem inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to make and sell red silk poppies which were brought to England by a French woman, Anna Guérin. The British Legion, formed in 1921, ordered 9 million of these poppies and sold them on 11 November that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately and that first ever Poppy Appeal raised over £106,000 to help WW1 veterans with employment and housing. Poppy-wearing gathered momentum, and in 1933 poppies started to be made in a purpose-built factory in Richmond, which produces millions of poppies each year.
What are some good books on poppies?
This is a wonderful book that I can highly recommend. I learned a lot, and ended up with even more respect for these mostly young men who lived and died in such an appalling war. But Lewis-Stempel also shows the amazingly close connections – both positive and negative – between the soldiers who fought on the front line and nature.
It starts with the positive aspects, and the surprising fact that no man’s land was, effectively, a bird reserve with a barbed wire perimeter: ‘If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be’ says one soldier. Experiences with birds, especially when they were singing in the lulls, lifted their spirits: “They offered a touch of Heaven in Hell.”
Lewis-Stempel also covers the benefits of close connections with dogs, horses and mules on and beyond the Front Line, as well as gardening in all its varied aspects, even in prisoner-of-war camps. The swathes of poppies of course made a huge impact, tinged by the fact that “the blood of soldiers is the fertiliser for the poppy.”
But he also brings us down to earth with the horrendous accounts of infestations of lice and rats in the trenches; the massacres of horses and mules; even the bacteria and viruses that brought death.
This is a great starting point for anyone interested in reading more poetry from the Great War. It includes all the best known pieces by the well-known poets such as Sassoon, Owen, Brooke, Rosenberg etc., but also has an excellent range of poets that are rarely included in anthologies of war poems.
Where the poppies now grow by Hilary Robinson
A delightfully written book that will introduce young children (e.g. aged 5 to 10) to trench warfare. It’s beautifully illustrated, and deals with a difficult subject with great tenderness and sympathy.
More about the First World War
Here are some other articles of mine about the First World War in Belgium:
- What happened after the Armistice? For thousands of Belgian people, the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 marked the beginning of another grim struggle that was to last for decades.
- Visiting the Menin Gate for the Last Post. What’s the origin of the Last Post and why is it played every day at the Menin Gate in Ypres?
- How did the First World War start? A timeline of events.
Where can I walk around Flanders Fields?
I describe a couple of walks through Flanders Fields. They start from the excellent Memorial Museum of Passchendaele, go into the surrounding countryside, and take in some of the most poignant cemeteries in Flanders Fields.
Any questions about Flanders Fields, poppies, or the First World War in Flanders, drop me a line and I will do my best to research the answer.