August boasts the brilliant red poppy as its signature flower. The poppy has been sought after for centuries for its vibrant hue, edible seeds, and narcotic properties. But in the early 20th century, it gained a whole new significance.
World War I saw the vast destruction of human life and landscape. Villages were reduced to stony rubble, fields were transformed into muddy networks of trenches and tunnels, and death hung in the air. Against the backdrop of such tremendous destruction, every sign of life became a powerful beacon of hope and consolation: the trill of a lark, the scramble of vermin, the fresh face of a wildflower.
Poppies are particularly resilient, thriving in disturbed soil. And in the heat of battle, when Canadian soldier John McCrae caught sight of a field bursting with wild poppies, he was moved to write what is now one of the most famous WWI era poems, “In Flanders Field” (also known as “We Shall Not Sleep”):
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.
Three years later, a woman named Moina Belle Michael would bring new attention to McCrae’s poem. One morning working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ Headquarters, she came across the poem in Ladies’ Home Journal and immediately felt a mission take shape: she would transform the poppy into an official memorial symbol for all fallen WWI soldiers and veterans. For years she campaigned tirelessly for the poppy to be declared a national memorial symbol, but it was alternatively adopted by the American Legion and several military veterans’ groups throughout Europe. Remembrance Day (or Armistice Day) is celebrated in the UK every November 11th to commemorate the end of WWI. The poppy is still the emblem of this holiday and continues to serve as a powerful symbol for the supreme sacrifice of the millions of souls who lost their lives to the war.
It is a sobering history indeed, but one of great beauty and hope. So sport your poppies with added fervor in remembrance of those who have gone before us.