PETER FROST traces the history and symbolism of the poppy
The poppy, Britain’s most colourful weed, is much in the news lately as we mark the centenary of WWI that didn’t end all wars. Over the century that simple flower came to mean all kinds of things to all kinds of people and not always for the best.
We are talking about the corn poppy, (Papaver rhoeas) also known as the corn rose, field poppy, Flanders poppy, red poppy, red weed, coquelicot, and even, due to the strange effect of its curious smell — the headache poppy.
Cascading down the walls of the Tower of London are thousands of ceramic red poppies and they are promised to fill the moat before November 11, Armistice Day.
Members of the public are invited to pay 25 quid to acquire a poppy for themselves. Some of the money goes to a coalition of military charities. The poppies will stay in the Tower until November and then be despatched to those who have purchased them.
There are plenty of poppies to buy — 888,246 in fact — one for each of the brave British tommies who laid down their lives in the blood and gore of the first world war.
The poppies at the Tower are an amazing sight — the thought behind it a noble one. But as you would expect every dodgy politician from the prime minister down, every gung-ho blood and thunder Colonel Blimp is getting in on the PR act.
Even junior royals like Prince Harry, this time not wearing his Gestapo uniform, and William and Kate are trooping along to the Tower to plant a poppy to ensure a spot on the six o’clock TV news.
It’s too good an opportunity to miss. Wrap a bit of the glorious dead’s glory round you.
Commercial sponsors haven’t been slow to get in on the act either. There’s a Spanish sounding bank, a big city insurance firm and millionaire’s law firm, but topping the sponsors list are — would you believe it — two of the biggest freemason’s lodges in Britain?
Let’s leave this whole pathetic story and take a look at the amazing plant itself.
The poppy has evolved and found itself a unique evolutionary niche. We don’t really know where it originated. North Africa probably, or perhaps ancient Persia.
We do know how it travelled. It hitched a lift in the clay jars of seed corn that ancient traders trafficked all over the known world.
Ancient farmers in Britain, Flanders and just about everywhere else would buy a bushel or so of seed from a passing Phoenician and the free gift would be a bunch of colourful scarlet weeds.
They soon discovered that the poppy seed had plenty of uses in bread and cakes and boiled up in a tea it even possessed magical curative powers.
It had developed its tiny rock hard seed to last a long time before it landed up somewhere it could grow.
Did you know that some poppy seeds found in funereal jars in ancient tombs have been successfully germinated?
That of course is the explanation of the huge flowering of poppies in Flanders. As shells, bombs and trench digging disturbed the soil, poppy seeds that had lain dormant so long got warmth, moisture and sunlight and burst into scarlet flower.
Up to 10 million soldiers were killed in WWI. Estimates of civilian deaths top 1.4m.
As the men returned home, many of them with shell-shock, or what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they had stories to tell.
Those who had seen such horrors in Belgium and northern France also would tell a much brighter story of the extraordinary beauty, persistence and profusion of the fragile but defiant flower — the blood red corn poppy.
Strangely, it was returning north American soldiers who first adopted the red poppy as an emblem.
Canadian doctor John McCrae had captured the beauty, symbolism and pathos of the poppy in a poem: 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…
US organisations arranged for artificial poppies to be made by women in war-torn France. The money raised went to children who had been orphaned by the war.
British soldiers too came back from the grimness of war to find that life wasn’t “fit for heroes” as they had been promised. Just like today returning heroes found the government off hand and tardy dealing with their problems.
Some organised themselves into ex-servicemen’s societies of various political opinions and of varying degrees of militancy. In 1921 many of these organisations united to form the British Legion.
Its purpose was to provide support and to fight for the rights of ex-servicemen, especially the disabled, and their families. In fact what actually happened was it became one of the richest British charities ever.
In 1921 it bought one-and-a-half million of those French made artificial poppies and sold them to the British public raising over ten thousand pounds. Poppy day had been invented.
Soon it set up its own poppy factory, with disabled ex-servicemen making the poppies. Today they produce and sell over 45m lapel poppies, 120,000 wreaths and one million small wooden remembrance crosses.
Not everyone is happy to wear the red poppy. Some see them as glorifying war and militaristic thinking. In many people’s eyes they have become a badge of jingoism and a justification of recent wars.
The British Legion adopted as its slogan: “Honour the dead, care for the living” but even in the week David Cameron and Nick Clegg and various other ministers paraded themselves at the British Legion commemorative church service it was announced that claims for compensation from recently serving military personnel, often wounded in battle, were taking 10 times as long as before the latest Con-Dem round of spending cuts.
The idea of detaching the poppy from a militaristic culture dates back as far as 1926.
The No More War Movement suggested that the British Legion should be asked to imprint “No More War” in the centre of the red poppies instead of “Haig Fund” and failing this pacifists should make their own flowers.
Douglas “Butcher” Haig (below) was the British general who had ordered so many of his troops to their deaths at the Battle of the Somme — one of the worst bloodbaths in British military history.
When it came to lions led by donkeys, Haig was certainly our biggest donkey — two million brave lions died under his orders.
The Legion choose to keep Haig’s name on their poppies until 1994.
In 1933 the first white poppies appeared on Armistice Day, mostly home-made and worn mainly by members of the Co-operative Women’s Guild.
Just a year later the Peace Pledge Union was formed and it began widespread distribution of white peace poppies in November each year.
Just as today, it took real courage and real commitment to wear the white peace poppy.
So which will you wear? My wife Ann always wears a red poppy. She wears it in proud memory of her dad Fred who always wore his red poppy in memory of his own father, another Fred, Ann’s grandfather.
Grandfather Fred died in France in 1917. He had been in France just days and his body was never found. He left a widow and four children including young Fred then aged just six. Fred’s red poppy was the only memorial to his dad he ever had. No wonder he wore it with pride.
This year our 14-year-old grandson, who also has the middle name Frederick, was at Tyne Cot cemetery with his dad and his his family to pay tribute to his namesake, five generations before, who made the ultimate sacrifice at the Battle of the Somme.
So wear your poppy, red or white or both with pride. They aren’t about glorifying war and militaristic thinking. They are about the respect each of us feels for those who paid the greatest price in the futility of war.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 21 August 2014