2018 marks the centenary of the conclusion of the First World War and it is from that date that the poppy has become an important symbol of Remembrance. During the First World War (1914–1918) much of the fighting took place in Western Europe in areas of countryside that was picturesque and beautiful. The First World War changed the landscape dramatically as the warring factions fought over it again and again. The region quickly changed and became something of a bleak wilderness where little or nothing could grow.
The exception was the poppy – bright red Flanders poppies continued to grow and these delicate flowers blossomed amidst the carnage and destruction and it was in early May 1915, shortly after losing a friend in Ypres, that Lt Col John McCrae was inspired by the poppies to write a now famous poem called ‘In Flanders Fields.’
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. Subsequently with the creation of The (Royal) British Legion in 1921, an order was placed for 9 million of these poppies which were sold on 11 November that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately and that first ever ‘Poppy Appeal’ raised over £106,000; a considerable amount of money at the time. This was used to help World War 1 veterans with employment and housing.
The following year, Major George Howson set up the Poppy Factory to employ disabled ex-Servicemen. Today, the factory and the Legion’s warehouse in Aylesford produces millions of poppies each year. The demand for poppies in England was so high that few were reaching Scotland so in 1926 Earl Haig’s wife established the ‘Lady Haig Poppy Factory’ in Edinburgh to produce poppies exclusively for Scotland. Over 5 million Scottish poppies (which have four petals and no leaf unlike poppies in the rest of the UK) are still made by hand by disabled ex-Servicemen at Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory each year and distributed by our sister charity Poppyscotland.
Poppies have become a truly national symbol of remembrance.