I might not be able to remember where I last threw my car keys, but almost fifty years on, I can recall the red paper poppy I pinned onto my school uniform every November. Purchased for a couple of pennies, it was a simple symbol of remembrance, worn in tribute to the soldiers who died in battle since World War I.
"Poppy Day", as it's known in the U.K., is officially Remembrance Sunday, i.e. the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, November 11th. Poppy wearing season nowadays though begins earlier than when I was growing up, with sales starting in October. Also, what was once a low-key commemorative display of support seems to have now been augmented by the apparently unwritten rule that all television announcers, presenters and public figures sport a poppy on their clothing.
This year, to mark the 100th year since the first full day of Britain's involvement in the First World War, The Tower of London played host to a major art installation; Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. 888,246 ceramic poppies filled the Tower's moat, each poppy symbolizing the loss of a British serviceman during the war. From August 5 to November 11, five million people visited the awe-inspiring installation, and when the poppies were sold off at the end of the installation period, they raised in excess of £10 million or six service charities.
Lest anyone had any ideas as to filching a poppy in the night, they were protected by the Tower's guardians: Her Majesty's very own Yeomen Warders.
The Tower of London, Beefeaters, Remembrance Poppies: all great British traditions. Well, at least two of the three are, because much to my surprise the custom of wearing poppies on Armistice Day originated right here in the U.S.A. They were the brainchild of a University of Georgia professor, Moina Michael, who was volunteering at the YMCA Overseas Headquarters in New York City back in November of 1918, when she came across a poem in the Ladies Home Journal called "In Flanders Field".
Written in 1915 by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (see full poem below), the poem's last verse, "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" so touched Michael, the daughter of a confederate veteran, that she went out and purchased 25 silk poppies. She pinned one to her coat and handed out the rest. Two days later on November 11th at 11am, Armistice was declared and Michael vowed then that she would always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance to those who served in the war.
On her return to the University, Michael set about organizing the making and selling of artificial poppies to raise funds for disabled veterans. At first the poppies were made and sold only by women, but the idea was greeted with such enthusiasm by the public that in 1920 the American Legion made the Poppy the official symbol of remembrance, and in 1922 the silk and paper poppies were being distributed nationally by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. By this time Michael had been joined in her efforts by Frenchwoman Anna E. Guérin, who introduced the poppies internationally. By the time of Michael's death in 1944, more than $200 million had been raised for the rehabilitation of war veterans in the United States, Great Britain, Canada and other countries. Since then, poppy sales have raised hundreds of millions more dollars.
During her lifetime, the "Poppy Lady" as Michael was known, was the recipient of numerous awards. Recognition for her achievement continued after her death when in 1948, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor. She also had a section of a highway named after her, when in 1969, part of U.S. Highway 78 in Georgia was named "The Moina Michael Highway".
Sadly, poppy sales commemorating Veteran's Day in this country seem to have given way to sales of the bargain basement variety, although it is still possible to get a poppy on Memorial Day through a number of veterans organizations. In the U.K., however, the poppies are made by disabled ex-servicemen and their families at the 90-year-old Poppy Factory in Richmond, Surrey and at the Lady Haig Poppy Factory in Edinburgh. It's a process that takes almost a year.
The British so love their poppies that when it came time to take down the installation at The Tower of London, the public demanded the display be given a reprieve. Keeping the entire installation in place was not financially or logistically possible: the poppies had already been sold off and the moat plays host to private events. It was eventually decided, with the backing of London's Mayor and the leaders of all the main political parties, that a portion of the installation, the wave of blood-red blooms flowing across a walkway and the cascade pouring down from a tower, be preserved for an additional two weeks, before touring the country. Funding for the tour is coming out of the fines paid to the government by the banks that were caught manipulating the inter-bank borrowing rate. After the tour, the structures will be placed permanently in London's Imperial War Museum.