A century of the Poppy Appeal

Tim Atkinson 2 November 2021

1921 marked the first year of the Legion poppy appeal, and the rest is history. We take a look at its origins and hear the stories of war veterans for whom the poppy matters so much

Not even the worldwide coronavirus pandemic could stop the Poppy Appeal, although last year the Royal British Legion was forced to abandon traditional door-to-door sales and spend £70,000 on hand sanitiser.

Thankfully this November 11 (or the Sunday nearest) Remembrance ceremonies will again take place to commemorate the dead of the two world wars and many subsequent conflicts. And what's more, this year will mark the centenary of the sale of red paper poppies.

The choice of the red poppy symbol owes its origins to a poem written in 1915 by Canadian army surgeon John McCrae. “In Flanders Fields” was written while McCrae was serving behind the lines near Ypres.

Sitting in the back of a medical field ambulance near an advance dressing post at Essex Farm, he was inspired by the proliferation of poppies growing both on the battlefields and in the military cemeteries. Poppies thrive in disturbed soil, and there was plenty of that on the Western Front.

It wasn't the first time the link between war and Papaver rhoeas (as the scarlet corn poppy is officially known) had been noticed, either. The fields of Waterloo had been strewn with the same crimson flowers a century before and as early as 1694, Lord Perth was writing of the poppies that appeared after the battle of Landen, “as if last year’s blood has taken root and has appeared as this year in flowers.”

Nevertheless, the first wreaths laid at the Cenotaph in 1919 were made not of poppies, but a variety of blooms including the Bleuet de France cornflowers, still the symbol of remembrance across the Channel. It was not until 1921, when the first Royal British Legion poppy appeal took place, that the red paper poppy now ubiquitous as the symbol of remembrance in the UK and Commonwealth was widely sold or worn.

And the story of how this small, versatile and resilient weed became such a powerful icon of war and sacrifice is a complicated one, involving not only McCrae's poem but the campaigning efforts of two remarkable women. 

Poppy Appeal

A handmade Remembrance poppy by American woman Moina Belle Michael, in an attempt to raise funds for veterans of the First World War

Moina Michael, an American teacher working for the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries organisation, was inspired after reading McCrae's poem to suggest disabled ex-servicemen might make simple paper poppies as a means of raising much-needed funds for veterans.

Anna Guérin, meanwhile, a wealthy French widow, decided to sponsor the manufacture of silken red poppies in the devastated areas of France, which were then sold to raise money for war widows and orphans.

It was Guérin who, in 1921, persuaded Earl Haig, founder of the British Legion, to adopt the poppy as a symbol of remembrance and sacrifice. But Haig and the newly-established Legion liked Moina Michael's idea of using disabled servicemen themselves to make the simple paper poppies. It was an idea that, a year later, led to the birth of the Poppy Factory.

"It was Guérin who, in 1921, persuaded Earl Haig, founder of the British Legion, to adopt the poppy as a symbol of remembrance and sacrifice"

In 1922, war veteran Major George Howson wrote: “I have been given a cheque for £2,000 to make poppies with. It is a large responsibility and will be very difficult. If the experiment is successful it will be the start of an industry to employ 150 men. I do not think it can be a great success, but it is worth doing.”

Thankfully his pessimism was short-lived. By 1925, Howson was buying land in Richmond, Surrey, on which to build a new factory, the original having outgrown its premises on the Old Kent Road. A century later the factory is still there, beside the Thames, producing over 5 million poppies a year, in addition to 130,000 poppy wreaths and a million remembrance crosses annually.

From the outset, the factory’s aim was to employ ex-servicemen, many of whom were desperate for work after the war. Initially that meant just five men, but the number soon grew to 40 and by the time the factory relocated to Richmond, the workforce numbered more than 300 veterans.

The new premises allowed for expansion, and also had space to build veterans’ accommodation, as well as space for rest and recreation. This broadening of charity’s scope gradually expanded to the extent that today’s Poppy Factory supports veterans all over the country—and not just making poppies.

The “Getting You Back to Work” campaign was launched in 2010 with a target of supporting 500 ex-Service men and women with health conditions into sustainable work by 2016. By the summer of 2015, this ambitious milestone had already been reached, confirming once again the success of The Poppy Factory’s life-changing work.

Derek Johnson-Brown spent six years with the Royal Corps of Signals both in the UK and Germany. A serious motorcycle accident in 2017 resulted in him almost losing a leg. “I had already been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia four years earlier,” he tells me, “and initially I found it hard to accept that I had a disability and could not do things I had taken for granted before.”

Derek had more than a dozen different operations over a period of three years before feeling ready to consider returning to some form of employment. It was then that the Poppy Factory stepped in. 

"They helped me to see beyond my disability and what I couldn't do, focusing instead on what I could"

“They helped me to see beyond my disability and what I couldn't do, focusing instead on what I could. They helped me to apply for roles using transferable skills I’d learned from both military and civilian jobs. I would still be moping around feeling useless if they had not given me a sense of worth and a direction.” 

Derek is now an employment coach himself, working for the Department of Work and Pensions. “I have sign posted every military veteran with a health condition that crosses my path to the Poppy Factory,” he says proudly. “The poppy symbol and the Poppy Factory means a great deal to the veteran community.”

But what of the wider community? There have been increasing concerns in recent years about the pressure to conform, especially among those in the public eye. Newsreader Jon Snow coined the term "poppy fascism” to describe what he regards as the unreasonable demand to wear the flower in his lapel while on TV. 

A memorial featuring verses from the poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium

“I respect our armed forces, the sacrifice and the loss, and like others I remember them on Remembrance Sunday,” Snow wrote in a blog post on the Channel 4 news website, where he admits to wearing a poppy in private. “But I am not going to wear it or any other symbol on air.”

Some claim the poppy makes a political statement. The England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland football associations were each fined for allowing their respective teams to wear the poppy during the 2018 World Cup Qualifying fixtures, defying FIFA rules on the display of "political or religious symbols”.

Others, including some veterans, object that the red poppy glorifies war. In 2014, a group of ex-servicemen called Veterans For Peace held an alternative remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, laying a wreath of white poppies and wearing T-shirts quoting Harry Patch, the last survivor of the First World War, “War is Organised Murder”. 

But for Don Jenkins, who served for 30 years in the Royal Corps of Signals, wearing the poppy “is an outward expression of my thanks to those who made the ultimate sacrifice or who were injured or disabled. I also realise,” he tells me, “that the money will go to those who have served and who have either fallen on hard times or need some kind of assistance.”

"Wearing the poppy is an outward expression of my thanks to those who made the ultimate sacrifice or who were injured or disabled"

And for Ian King, who recently retired after a 20-year career in the Royal Navy, "Remembrance is one of those things that ties the military to the people… It is an identification with those who have gone before, a wished for association with them and a recognition that we have not given the ultimate sacrifice that they have. We are grateful for their service.”

That gratitude, according to McCrae, brings with it the responsibility to “take up the battle” ourselves. McCrae’s poem is as much about looking forward as it is about remembrance. As a poet, McCrae memorialised the dead; but as an army surgeon his work was about caring for the living.

The torch that is passed to us is as much about our duty of care to the survivors of war as it is about the very necessary duty of remembrance. And annual sales of the red paper poppy give us all the opportunity to do our duty, every year, to help ensure that the victims and veterans of war are not forgotten.

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