How the poppy became the symbol of World War I

The Royal Family Lay Wreaths At The Cenotaph On Remembrance Sunday
Getty Images | Chris Jackson

Have you noticed the red poppy pins members of the British royal family often wear on their lapels? What’s up with that? Prince Harry’s fiance, Meghan Markle, was recently seen sporting one during her first Anzac Day service on April 25, a day set aside to commemorate the first major battle involving Australian and New Zealand forces during World War One.

Well, it turns out there’s a reason the royals wear this specific accessory — the red ceramic poppy has apparently become a symbol of remembrance for those who died in the war.

meghan markle anzac day photo
Getty Images | WPA Pool

The poppy’s association with World War I is believed to have both historical and biological roots. Poppies need light to grow, and can lay dormant for 80 years or more when buried in the earth and not exposed to sunlight. But when that soil is disturbed and the seeds become exposed to the sun, the poppies bloom, surprising those who didn’t realize that seeds had been buried there.

That’s exactly what happened throughout Europe in the wake of World War I, when the soil was disturbed by trenches, bombs and artillery fire. Flanders Fields, in particular, was the site of the gruesome Battle of Ypres, and Canadian doctor John McCrae took note of the poppies that appeared there. In fact, seeing them inspired him to write a poem in 1915, titled “In Flanders Fields.” The moving poem observes how the poppies sprang up as a symbol of hope in the place where so many lost their lives:

“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.”

Wearing poppies to commemorate the sacrifices soldiers made in the war has now been a tradition for more than 100 years for people across the world, including in the United Kingdom, Canada, France and Belgium, particularly on Armistice Day on Nov. 11. In the United States, poppies are typically worn on Memorial Day, which honors those who have died while serving in the U.S. armed forces.

red poppy pin photo
Getty Images | Carl Court

In 1922, Major George Hewson, a British army officer, established the Poppy Factory in Richmond, England, which today employs about 30 disabled veterans. They make the poppies and wreaths for the royal family and the Royal British Union Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal.

In 2014, artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper created an installation made of more than 888,246 ceramic red poppies, “Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red,” to mark the centenary of the outbreak of WWI. Each poppy represented a British or Colonial life lost in the war. Originally staged by Historic Royal Palaces at HM Tower of London, the installation was visited by more than 5 million people.

blood swept land and seas of red photo
Getty Images | Carl Court

Through December 2018, two sculptures made from those poppies, “Wave” and “Weeping Window” are on tour at locations throughout the UK as part of 14-18 NOW:

Poppies from the installation were also sold and have been taken all over the world, and a digital map of where the poppies have ended up, with accompanying stories of the significance of each poppy to its owner, has been created through Where Are The Poppies Now.

We can’t help but be moved by these gorgeous displays.

Curiosity, Life

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About the Author
Kate Streit
Kate Streit lives in Chicago. She enjoys stand-up comedy, mystery novels, memoirs, summer and pumpkin spice anything. Visit Scripps News to see more of Kate's work.

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