After all the horror, and the mud, and the blood of those terrible battlefields on the Western Front….in Flanders fields in Belgium and in Northern France there sprang the first sign of new life…blood red poppies… on those killing fields that claimed so many young men from both sides of the Great War to end all wars.
The soldiers said the vivid red of the poppy came from the blood of their mates soaking the ground. It has since been adopted as the symbol of remembrance and is worn each year on the anniversary of Armistice Day – at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month – when a minute’s silence is observed to mark the cessation of all hostilities on the Western Front and in memory of the service and sacrifice of others.
During the Second Battle for Ypres, in 1915, a young Canadian was killed on 2 May and his friend Major John McRae, a Canadian military doctor and artillery commander, was called on to conduct the service for his mate, 22 year old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. The sight of poppies on the battlefield at Ypres that spring in 1915 are said to have inspired him later that night to start his draft of his now famous ode to the fallen – In Flanders Fields.
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.
The poem was first published on December 8 of that year in the London based magazine, Punch. To this day, the poem remains one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is a lasting legacy of the terrible battles of the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915.
Throughout these centenary years of World War One the poppy has become a major symbol. For example the 5000 Poppies Project started from humble beginnings by two Melbourne women who wanted to crochet 120 poppies to remember their fathers who served in WWII. It ignited a passion right across Australia and in fact has become an international tribute to the fallen.
To date over 300,000 handcrafted poppies have been contributed from all over the world and they have been on display in Melbourne and in England at the Chelsea Flower Show. By chance I ran into some women who had been conducting a test with a few hundred of the poppies outside the Australian War Memorial. They had “planted” the poppies overnight to see how they stood up to the storms and the kangaroos – in preparation for the centenary of Armistice Day next year – where they will be on display for several weeks. You can read all about the remarkable story of the 5000 Poppies Project here: https://5000poppies.wordpress.com/about/
Today in Melbourne at the Shrine of Remembrance thousands of the poppies are once again on display on the slopes surrounding the memorial and the carpet of poppies sown together line the entrance in readiness for the special ceremony this morning.
Every year the RSL holds their Poppy Appeal which contributes significantly to their fundraising work. The largest fundraising activity of the Appeal is the sale of poppies beginning in late October each year. Poppies are available in various denominations from $1 to $50 and the money raised is used to assist both current and former serving members of the Australian and Allied defence forces and their dependents when in need. The RSL encourages all Australians to purchase a poppy and 'Remember in November.'