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Why the Poppy?

Poppy Day

 

Once again, the yearly Remembrance Day is nearly here. Given the fact that a growing number of generations have now passed between the end of the World Wars and the present day, there appears to be a lack of understanding about why this annual event happens, and why it is still so important to our modern world, even though nothing seems to have been learned from the incredibly massive loss of life that war brings. We in the (current) United Kingdom can really have no real understanding of the impact that this loss of life made on society, which continues to this day. There is no other point of reference of such loss can make so much change in the day to day life of so much of the population apart from the Black Death.

 

We remember these seismic events specifically every year, on November 11th, and the event has become synonimous with the wearing of a poppy.The origins of using the poppy as a form of remembrance has a long history, with references to poppies on fields or war, and specifically on the fields of Flanders, going back centuries. For example, in a battle in 1693 in at Neerwinden, Belgium, the Earl of Perth ( there were a large number of Scottish mercenaries fighting for one of the protagonists) wrote “the ground was strewn with skulls and bones of horses and men, and with fragments of hats, shoes, saddles, and holsters. The next summer the soil, fertilised by 20,000 corpses, broke forth into millions of scarlet poppies.”. The appearance of poppies in the wartime environment was also noted in the WW1 poem “In Flanders Fields”, written by Canadian physician John McCrae on 3 May 1915 after witnessing the death of his friend and fellow soldier the day before, referring to Flanders poppies growing among the graves of war dead.

 

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.

 

This poem was subsequently published on 8th December 1915 in the popular London-based magazine Punch. On November 9th 1918, Georgian teacher Moina Michael came across the poem in a magazine, and it immediately resonated with her. She made a vow to wear a poppy as a symbol of her allegiance and respect for those who fought in the war. For the next 2 years, she worked hard at pushing the concept of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. In September of 1920, the National American Legion adopted the Memorial poppy as an official symbol.

 

In 1920, a French socialite and novelist named Claudine Guérin de Tencin visited the United States and discovered the custom of wearing poppies to commemorate the fallen soldiers and she had the idea to sell poppies to raise money for impoverished children in France, as many were left orphaned in the destruction of the war.Largely due to Guérin’s campaigning, the poppy became an international symbol.

 

Once the First World War finally ended, it was recognised that with the bodies so many soldiers who had died in the conflict remaining unidentified, there became a need for closure for the families at home, to attempt to draw a line over a horrific event in the lives of everyone, with no part of the world being unaffected by the Great War. To this end, British authorities conceived a way of allowing those grieving to have some form of closure, and to recognise the sacrifice of so many to preserve a way of life.

 

In collaboration with the French authorities,four unidentified British bodies were unearthed from temporary battlefield cemeteries at Ypres, Arras, the Aisne, and the Somme on November 7th, 1920, in the strictest secrecy. These bodies were carefully transported by field ambulance to GHQ at St-Pol-sur-Ternoise. Upon arrival, they were reverently covered with the Union flag, a symbol of the United Kingdom. Guarded by sentries, Brigadier-General Wyatt and Colonel Gell randomly selected one body from the four, while the remaining three were respectfully reinterred.

 

A French Honour Guard was chosen to stand vigil over the selected soldier’s coffin overnight. On the morning of November 8th, a specially crafted oak coffin, made from wood harvested from Hampton Court’s grounds, arrived. The Unknown Warrior was placed inside, with a Crusader’s sword and a shield bearing the inscription: “A British Warrior who fell in the GREAT WAR 1914-1918 for King and Country.” On November 9th, the Unknown Warrior was transported by horse-drawn carriage through Guard of Honour formations, accompanied by tolling bells and bugle calls, to the quayside. There, Marechal Foch,French general, Marshal of France and Allied Supreme Commander in World War I, paid his respects, and the coffin was placed aboard HMS Vernon, bound for Dover. Covered in wreaths and surrounded by the French Honor Guard, the Unknown Warrior made this final journey.

 

Upon arrival in Dover, a nineteen-gun salute, a tribute normally reserved for Field Marshals, welcomed the Unknown Warrior. A special train was arranged to convey him to Victoria Station in London, where he remained overnight. On the morning of November 11th, the Unknown Warrior’s procession led him to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey. The idea of the Unknown Warrior originated from Padre David Railton, who had served on the front lines during the Great War. The Union flag he had used as an altar cloth while at the front was the same one draped over the soldier’s coffin. Padre Railton’s intention was to provide solace to the families of the 517,773 combatants whose bodies remained unidentified, he hoped that each of them might believe that the Unknown Warrior could very well be their lost husband, father, brother, or son.

 

This act of remembrance is the reason we wear poppies, which had become the recognised symbol of respect and remembrance of the fallen soldiers. It is not an act of glorifying war, but rather a tribute to the great and ultimate sacrifices, the countless individuals who gave their lives for a better world, in every subsequent conflict, not just the Great War. It is these sacrifices that have ensured the liberties and freedoms we often take for granted today.

 

Every year, on November 11th, we remember the Unknown Warrior.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

Flanders battlefield

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