Since 1921 the poppy has been accepted internationally as the symbol to remember fallen soldiers, thanks to the thousands of poppies that grew in Flanders Fields after the furious battle “from the blood of the fallen and wounded” in World War One.
At any service to remember a fallen soldier, the poppy is worn, closest to the heart and finally placed on the grave, cenotaph or memorial by those present. It is universally worn from November 1 to Remembrance Sunday – the second Sunday in November, this year the 9th.
“This has become a universal symbol for all fallen soldiers and those who returned,” Legionnaire Godfrey Giles, SA Legion national president, said.
The leaf on the poppy points to 11h00, for the 11th day of the 11th month since World War One ended but it is now for all fallen soldiers in any wars, conflicts and operations he said, adding there was even more relevance in South Africa today “with SA National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers killed in operations and training”.
“Please help us to remember them. ‘They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old, age shall not weary them nor the years condemn, at the going down of the sun, we will remember them’ by wearing the poppy,” Giles said, quoting Laurence Binyon’s famous poem ‘For the Fallen’.
South Africa this year has lost 15 soldiers in the Central African Republic and other deaths have been recorded on anti-poaching operations in the Kruger National Park.
In historical terms, the association of the poppy with Flanders Fields goes back to November 1918 when, on an impulse a Miss Moina Michaels bought a bouquet of poppies and handed them to businessmen holding a meeting at the YMCA in New York where she worked. She asked them to wear the poppies as a tribute to fallen American soldiers.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin in June 1919, a refreshment booth was decorated with poppies. It was stripped twice of the flowers. Patriotic Americans had taken them and left contributions on the counter. Volunteers collected the money and used it for the benefit of disabled veterans.
Mary Hanecy was a volunteer in Milwaukee that day and saw the potential for a fundraiser. She took her idea to the Milwaukee American Legion Post One. In 1920 on the Saturday before Memorial Day the Post distributed 50 000 poppies. Donations totalling $5 000 were received and used for veterans’ rehabilitation.
At around the same time Michaels returned to her home state of Georgia urging the wearing of the poppy as a tribute to fallen soldiers. The poppy was subsequently adopted as the State’s memorial flower.
At a conference in the same year the National American Legion adopted the poppy as its official symbol of remembrance. Present was Frenchwoman Anna E Guerin, who was inspired to introduce the artificial poppy commonly used today.
It was Lord Macaulay who first drew attention to this symbolism and he also suggested the poppy should be known as the “flower of sacrifice and remembrance”.
In 1920 the British Legion was formed to care for the interests of ex-servicemen and the late Field Marshall Douglas Haig, the Legion’s first grand president, sought a symbol to honour the dead and help the living. A year later Guerin sent her poppy sellers to London where they were adopted by Haig.
In Cape Town from February 28 to March 4, 1921, Canada, South Africa, Britain, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and a number of other countries adopted the Haig Poppy (named after the Field Marshall) as the official remembrance symbol.
The first poppies were made of silk by French war widows and orphans. When this became too expensive other methods had to be investigated. The first American poppies were made by veterans in Minnesota hospitals using crepe paper. Today all poppies are made by veterans, mostly disabled, in so-called poppy shops.
The SA Legion has about half a million poppies in stock at its Johannesburg headquarters and branches across the country.
“Anyone can collect – we do not sell them – and give them away hopefully in return for a donation. Funds raised will all go to assisting ex-servicemen,” Giles said.