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A photograph of the new Royal British Legion paper poppy

A history of the poppy

Image Credit: Sky HISTORY | Above: A photograph of the new Royal British Legion paper poppy

A century on from the first Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal, the bright red poppy has become a symbol of remembrance for war casualties. Each year over 45 million poppies are sold to raise vital funds to support veterans across the UK. While a notable token of remembrance, the poppy’s history stems back to the battlefields of WWI, where the bright red poppies contrasted the drastic battle-torn landscape and provided hope to the soldiers fighting there.

The Flanders Field poppies

The idea to use the poppy as the symbol of remembrance came from the poem ‘In Flanders Field’ by Canadian Doctor John McCrae. While stationed in the fields in Ypres, McCrae and his fellow soldiers were inspired by the bright red poppies that littered the otherwise desolated landscape. Where all other life had been destroyed from the bombardment and shelling, the conditions were perfect for the poppies, which thrived in the chaos. Following the end of the war, the fields in Flanders were overrun with poppies, concealing the battered and scarred landscape below.

McCrae’s poem was initially declined by several publications, but following its feature in Punch Magazine, Moina Michael (an American humanitarian) campaigned for the poppy to become the recognized symbol of remembrance. The campaign very quickly gained popularity and has been adopted by countries across the commonwealth, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

They’re not exclusively red

Despite being inspired by the bright red poppies of Flanders Fields, remembrance poppies are not exclusively red. Different colours symbolise remembrance for other things.

White poppies are used as a symbol to remember the innocent and civilian victims of war and offer the hope of peace through non-violent methods. Purple flowers have also gained popularity in recent years and are used to memorialise the animals that have died as a result of war.

Adding the green leaf

It’s hard to imagine now, but poppies didn’t always have their contrasting green leaf. The first design for remembrance poppies was closer to their natural inspiration and featured the red poppy with a black centre and a green stalk.

Green leaves were added to the poppy in the 1960s thanks to the practice of making poppy sprays. The silk flowers were adorned with green ferns, which began to gain popularity. Demand for poppies with leaves continued to grow, and leaves were sold as an optional extra right up until 1995 when they became a standard part of the poppy.

Instant sell out

The first British poppy appeal took place in 1921 when the charity ordered 9,000,000 red poppies. One million of those poppies were manufactured in the UK, and the other 8,000,000 were manufactured in France. They sold out almost instantly and raised over £106,000. Due to the popularity of the first poppy appeal, the Royal British Legion built their poppy factory that employed disabled ex-servicemen.

The British Legion’s legacy

Demand continued to grow in the years following the first poppy appeal, and the popularity meant that poppies had all but sold out before they reached Scotland. To ensure that the Poppy Appeal could continue to spread and raise vital funds, Lady Hague (wife of Earl Hague, founder of the Royal British Legion) built Lady Hague’s Poppy Factory in 1926, which supplies poppies exclusively to Scotland.

The Lady Hague’s Poppy Factory continues to employ ex-servicemen today and makes the original form of poppy with no leaf

The plastic-free poppy

In October 2023, the Royal British Region revealed what it called 'the biggest change in the poppy’s design for a generation'. In an effort to be more environmentally conscious, the new poppies are made entirely from paper and can be recycled at home by the people who buy them. The change comes after a three-year development period and sees the poppies made from a variety of renewable sources such as offcuts from coffee cups.

'Think of the sacrifices that have been made': Ross Kemp on the importance of supporting the Poppy Appeal

Image Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: Ross Kemp at London Kings Cross Station for the launch of the Royal British Legion's poppy appeal in 2019
Image Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: Ross Kemp at London Kings Cross Station for the launch of the Royal British Legion's poppy appeal in 2019

Ross Kemp, host of Sky HISTORY's Deep Sea Treasure Hunter, is an Ambassador of the Royal British Legion and a big supporter of the Poppy Appeal and other military charities like Help For Heroes. He spoke to Sky HISTORY about his involvement in the Poppy Appeal and why he's so passionate about supporting the cause and honouring Remembrance Day.

As Ross describes it: 'Remembrance Day is an opportunity to show my sympathy for the sacrifice that has been made and that continues to be made by members of the Armed Forces. It's very important to me that I wear a poppy for so many reasons: the fact that I enjoy liberty; that I live in a democracy; and the fact that members of my family fought and died in the Second World War and the First World War.'

He has been involved with the Royal British Legion for five years, and was the lead for London Poppy Day, 'the biggest single fundraising day in the British charitable calendar' . But sadly, he feels that it's 'getting harder and harder each year to get people to buy poppies'. Ross is keen to make it clear that 'the Poppy Appeal is a charitable organisation that relies on donations from the public and it is not a government organisation, and it needs as much help as it can get', which is why he is so keen to lend his support the appeal every year.

Wearing a poppy is not just about commemorating the war dead but also about raising money for veterans. As Ross explains, the money raised by the Royal British Legion goes towards many good causes. Last year, £48 million was raised to support 1.8 million veterans. In the past, Ross' own family received help from the Royal British Legion. His grandmother spent the last years of her life in a Royal British Legion care home, which further explains his commitment to the charity.

But what can we do to support the Royal British Legion and its aims? Ross is emphatic: 'Buy a poppy. The best thing you can do in terms of remembrance is to stand still at the 11th hour on the 11th day and think of the sacrifices that have been made for you to be able to live in a democracy and enjoy the liberties that we do in this country.'

Support the Poppy Appeal by buying a poppy from one of the many amazing Poppy collectors across the country or by donating directly to the Poppy Appeal.