The meaning behind the poppy worn on Remembrance Day

Photo: Matt Cardy/ Getty.

November 11 marks Remembrance Day, a memorial day for the end of the First World War and those who died in battle.

It is recognised by countries throughout the Commonwealth, and Australians, as in other countries, mark the day buy wearing a red poppy.

But what is its significance?

Here’s the history of the Flanders poppy according to the Australian Army.

Why a red poppy?

Canadian Colonel John McCrae first described the Red Poppy, the Flanders’ poppy, as the flower of remembrance.

Whilst serving in the First World War, one death in particular affected the then Major McCrae. A young friend and former student, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, was killed on 2 May. He was buried in the cemetery outside McCrae’s dressing station, and McCrae had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain.

McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. At the second battle of Ypres in 1915, when in charge of a small first-aid post, he wrote in pencil on a page from his despatch book, a poem that has come to be known as ‘Flanders’ Field’ which described the poppies that marked the graves of soldiers killed fighting for their country.

What is the significance for Australians?

The Red Poppy has special significance for Australians.

Worn on Remembrance Day each year, the red poppies were among the first to flower in the devastated battlefields of northern France and Belgium in the First World War. In soldiers’ folklore, the vivid red of the poppy came from the blood of their comrades soaking the ground.

In England in 1919, the British Legion sought an emblem that would honour the dead and help the living. The Red Poppy was adopted as that emblem and since then has been accepted as the Emblem of Remembrance.

The League adopted the idea in 1921, announcing: “The Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia and other Returned Soldiers Organisations throughout the British Empire and Allied Countries have passed resolutions at their international conventions to recognise the Poppy of Flanders’ Fields as the international memorial flower to be worn on the anniversary of Armistice Day.”

Australians wear a Red Poppy on Remembrance Day for three reasons. Firstly, in memory of the sacred dead who rest in Flanders’ Fields. Secondly, to keep alive the memories of the sacred cause for which they laid down their lives; and thirdly, as a bond of esteem and affection between the soldiers of all Allied nations and in respect for France, our common battleground.

Today, cloth poppies are sold on, or around, 11 November each year. They are an exact replica in size and colour of the poppies that bloom in Flanders’ Fields. The RSL sells millions of red cloth poppies with proceeds going towards raising funds for welfare work.

Here’s the poem McCrae, who was also a professor of medicine at McGill University of Canada before World War One wrote.

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.

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