It all begins with a poem by Doctor Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae and his celebrated poem ‘In Flanders Field’. Not that McCrae was the first person to associate the poppy with warfare. In ‘The Folklore of Plants’, by TH Thistleton (1889) the author mentions the ‘the red poppies which grew on the field at Waterloo after it was ploughed' that 'sprang from the bloodshed during the battle of 1815', but the poppy has had a much longer association in literature for its narcotic qualities.
However, John McCrae placed the blood red poppy right in the thick of the war dead and, four years after his untimely death, a decorated veteran, Major George Howson MC, founded the first poppy-making factory in 1922 after receiving £2,000 from the British Legion.
The traditional red poppy
The poppy is one of the most enduring symbols of our time and commemorates the dead of the First World War. In the UK it belongs solely to the Royal British Legion, but it has also inspired a host of other poppy colours to help us to observe other aspects associated with warfare.
The black Poppy
Created in 2010 by Historian Selena Carty, the Black Poppy stands in solidarity with that of the Royal British Legion but highlights the largely forgotten contribution of black, African and Caribbean communities to the war effort. And not just the First World War, the charity seeks to highlight ‘largely untold historical legacies’ that date back to the 16th Century and provide an ongoing programme of awareness through a dedicated series of events and educational programmes.
The white poppy
The white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union, founded in 1933, pre-dates the Second World War. It was created to challenge what it saw as the militarization of Remembrance Sunday and to remind everyone to work harder for peace. According to the PPU, the white poppy exists to ‘represent remembrance for all victims of war, a commitment to peace and a challenge to attempts to glamorise or celebrate war’.
The purple poppy
Created in 2006, the purple poppy commemorates animals killed during wartime. According to the RSPCA, 484,143 horses, mules, camels, and bullocks were killed between 1914 and 1918. So purple poppies are worn as a symbol of remembrance for this enormous loss of animal life in this and other conflicts in history.