100 Years

1918 - 2018

Marking the end of World War I

The Two Poppy Ladies

by Norah Dempster

It all started with a poem written more than a hundred years ago.

A Canadian medical officer and writer, Lt. Col. John McCrae conducting a friend’s burial during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 wrote the poem entitled “We Shall Not Sleep” or “In Flanders Field”.

The last stanza read:

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.

Remembrance poppyRemembrance poppyPhoto by Graeme StoreyThe devastating warfare and makeshift graves on the Western Front battlefield resulted in churned soil that fertilised the seeds of the wild red poppy, Papaver rhoeas. In what we can imagine was despair McCrae tossed the written words away. A fellow officer, and his name does not seem to be commonly recorded, picked the poem up and it was published in Punch magazine 8 December, 1915.

And that is where the two women came in, one American and one French. We don’t know for certain if they knew each other well, but we do know both women were active at the American Legion Convention in 1921when it was decided to make the poppy a national symbol to raise funds for war veterans and their families.

The American woman, professor and humanitarian Moina Michael, a volunteer at the New York YMCA, read McCrae’s poem in a Ladies Home Journal that was casually placed on her desk. She felt so moved that in what she later called 'a full spiritual experience', she wrote a response on the blank side of a yellow envelope. She called her poem “We Shall Keep The Faith.”

We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With all who died.

And with this pledge Moina Mitchell made a vow 'I shall always wear a red poppy.'

She went out, bought a bunch of poppies to display, and when some conference delegates at the YMCA responded with ten dollars to say thank you for her efforts to brighten up the place at her own expense, she bought artificial silk poppies, wore one, and gave the others out to the conference delegates. She saw this as the first poppy sale and from then on campaigned tirelessly at her own expense to make the poppy a national remembrance symbol.

The Frenchwoman, Madame Anna E. Guérin, known as the Poppy Lady from France, an inspiring teacher and international public lecturer had frequently spoken of the needs of war orphans in France. After the Convention she began production of fabric poppies in French orphanages. She sent ambassadors across the world, including to Australia and New Zealand, to speak to groups and organisations to encourage them to adopt the symbol and buy the handmade red silk poppies.

In 1921, the Australian forerunner to the RSL (the Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League) imported one million silk poppies and shared the sale proceeds between a French Children’s charity and the League’s own welfare work.

In the same year in New Zealand the ship carrying 366,000 poppies from France arrived too late for Armistice Day. The New Zealand Returned Soldiers Association decided instead to sell the poppies around the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing 25 April, in 1922. In New Zealand the wearing of the red poppy is still associated with Anzac Day.

In 1921 the new Royal British Legion ordered and sold nine million poppies on Armistice Day.

The thousands of red flowers that bloomed in Northern France and Belgium during World War One came to be seen as symbolising the blood of fallen soldiers. Poppies are planted in memorial parks as perennial reminders of those who sleep under the battlefields. Poppies are placed beside names as a personal tribute in Memorial Rolls of Honour. The funds raised from their sale continues to help veterans and their families from all wars. We should also remember the Two Poppy Ladies for their inspiration and dedicated work.

Sources:

American Legion Auxiliary, Fact sheet: https://www.alaforveterans.org/

Australian War Memorial: https://www.awm.gov.au/

Commonwealth War Graves Commission: https://www.cwgc.org/

Madame Guerin: https://poppyladymadameguerin.wordpress.com

New Zealand History: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/anzac-day/poppies

The Great War 1914-1918: http://www.greatwar.co.uk/

The Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/

Poem Hunter Australia: https://www.poemhunter.com/

Norah Dempster, 2018

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