The Remembrance Day symbolism of the poppy started with a poem written by a World War I brigade surgeon who was struck by the sight of the red flowers growing on a battlefield.
World War I took a greater human toll than any previous conflict. About 8.5 million soldiers died of battlefield injuries or disease. The war also ravaged the landscape of Western Europe, where most of the fiercest fighting took place. In the warm spring of 1915, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian who served as a brigade surgeon for the Allied artillery unit, spotted a cluster of poppies growing up through the battle ravaged ground. Struck by the sight of the red blooms, McCrae wrote the poem, “In Flanders Field,” in which he channeled the voice of the fallen soldiers that were buried under the hardy poppies. Published in Punch magazine in late 1915, the poem was used at countless memorial ceremonies and became one of the most famous works to emerge from the Great War.
Two days before the warring countries decided to end fighting, also known as the armistice, Moina Michael read “In Flanders Field” in the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal. A professor at the University of Georgia at the time of the war, Michaels was so inspired by McCrae’s verses that she wrote her own poem in response, which she called “We Shall Keep The Faith”. As a sign of this faith, and a remembrance of the sacrifices of Flanders Field, Moina Michael vowed to always wear a red poppy. After the war ended, she came up with the idea of making and selling red silk poppies to raise money to support returning veterans.
By the mid-1920s, Michael managed to get Georgia’s branch of the American Legion, a veteran’s group, to adopt the poppy as its symbol. Soon after, the National American Legion voted to use the poppy as the official national emblem of remembrance.
Today, Americans wear the symbolic red flower on Memorial Day to commemorate the sacrifice of so many men and women who gave their lives fighting for their country.