Since 1920, the red poppy has been used as a symbol of commemoration to soldiers who have fallen in times of war. During the First World War, poppies were among the first plants to blossom on the devastated battlefields of northern France and Belgium. According to soldier’s folklore, the vivid red of the poppy came from the blood of their comrades soaking the ground. Poppies grew in profusion over the earth which had become the grave to thousands of soldiers, making the poppy an appropriate symbol to represent the sacrifice of life and the bloodshed of trench warfare.
The sight of poppies springing up amidst the ravaged battlefields of Ypres inspired Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae to write one of the most notable and popular poems of the period, In Flanders Fields. It is believed that the poem was written on May 3rd 1915 after McCrae witnessed the death of his 22 year old friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer the day prior.
The tradition of wearing a poppy began just before the armistice in 1918. The secretary of the American YMCA, Moina Michael, read John McCrae’s poem and was so moved by it that she decided to partake in a personal commemorative ritual of wearing a red poppy. She believed this was a powerful way of keeping alive the faith that John McCrae had urged in his poem. In November 1918, a meeting was held with YMCA secretaries from around the world providing Moina Michael with a chance to discuss the poem and her decision to wear a red poppy. This inspired the French YMCA secretary, Anna Guérun to take the idea further and begin selling poppies to raise money for those affected by the war – particularly widows, orphans, veterans and their families.
The poppy soon became widely accepted throughout the allied nations as a symbol of remembrance which was to be worn on Armistice Day. Poppies were first sold in Australia in 1921 and continue to be sold by the RSL in the lead up to Remembrance Day every year to raise the much needed funds for the organisation’s valuable welfare work.