Poppies for Memorial Day

Memories that stay with us. I watched my Dad purchase a poppy flower every year around Memorial Day and learned it was to remember the veterans. With his passing, I picked up the tradition. I attach the flower to my handbag every year, hoping it will last awhile, but I often wondered what the story was behind this tradition. After reading many stories of how this tradition began I’ve put together this timeline:In 1915 on the fields of Belgium, France, and Gallipoli during World War I, the poppy flower grew. The red flowers blanketed the battlefields and became synonymous with great loss of life in war. As Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae watch his fellow men, including friend Alexis Helmer, perish, he penned a poem called In Flanders Fields with the reference to red poppy flowers on the battlefield. This poem helped solidify the red poppy as an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance.

Inscription of the complete poem in a bronze "book" at the John McCrae memorial at his birthplace in Guelph, Ontario
Inscription of the complete poem in a bronze “book” at the John McCrae memorial at his birthplace in Guelph, Ontario

In 1918 Moina Michael was deeply moved while reading the poem. She decided to wear a poppy and gave out poppies to honor the veteran’s that had died. With the war ending, she campaigned to use this symbol to remember always.

Moina Michael’s grave marker

It seems that Madame Guerin around 1921 was also pushing the red poppy as a Remembrance Flower in France. As a visitor to the United States VFW convention of 1923, Madame Guerin, founder of the American and French Children’s League, wanted to use the sale of the poppies for the orphans and widows of the war and campaigned in Europe.

With the incessant energy of these two women in the space of four years, the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand adopted what we now call the Remembrance Poppy, establishing a tradition that continues to this day.

image003In 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) started to sell the poppies. At a convention in 1923, the VFW voted to make the “Buddy Poppy” the official memorial flower. The program’s theme fit nicely with the mission of the VFW: “to honor the dead by helping the living.” Having difficulty finding enough flowers, they opened the Buddy Poppy factory in Pittsburgh, PA to have the flowers made by disabled veterans. Today, the making of the flowers is done in VA Hospitals. In 1924, the VFW received a patent for the name “Buddy Poppy” from the U.S. Patent Office. The money raised is kept locally for veterans’ services.

What started as one poem inspired a second poem, and over time grew to extend to stamps, memorials, and many books to honor veterans and those killed in war, as well as John McCrae, Moina Michael and Madame E Guerin.

In Flanders Fields


By Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, Composed at the battlefront on May 3, 1915 during the second battle of Ypres, Belgium

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


We Shall Keep the Faith


By Moina Michael, November 1918

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,

Sleep sweet – to rise anew!

We caught the torch you threw

And holding high, we keep the Faith

With All who died.


We cherish, too, the poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led;

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies,

But lends a lustre to the red

Of the flower that blooms above the dead

In Flanders Fields.


And now the Torch and Poppy Red

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;

We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought

In Flanders Fields.

For more information:

Contributed by: Joan Wagner, Chief Librarian, Bay Shore





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