The history of the Flanders poppy goes back to the time of the Great War. Red poppies were among the first signs of life to return in the devastated battlefields of northern France and Belgium. In soldiers’ folklore, the bright red colours of the poppy came from the blood of their “mates” or comrades soaking the ground. In this wonderful illustration above by Harold H. Piffard, from Canada in Khaki magazine, circa 1917, red poppies are shown separating the war and peace. It is quite a striking image that was at the time of its publication, used to raise awareness of the plight of Canadian soldiers during the war, and help raise money for the Canadian War Memorial Fund.
I have no doubt that inspiration for Piffard’s The Thin Red Line came from one of the most popular and most quoted poems of the war – “In Flanders Fields”, written by Canadian physician Lietenant-Colonel John McCrae.
“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.”
Interesting, the poem also inspired Commonwealth fighting countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Great Britain to wear a poppy as a symbol to remember all those who perished during the conflict, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the guns on the western front in Europe ceased. This day (November 11) was originally known as Armistice Day. It is a tradition that was adopted in 1921. However, with the advent of a far greater and more devastation Second World War, Armistice Day was no longer considered an appropriate title to remember all war dead. Australian and British governments changed the name to Remembrance Day.
*This article was first published on November 11th 2013.