A history of the 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

Written by:

Jo Rowan