History of the poppy
Much of the previously beautiful countryside in Western Europe was destroyed during the battles of the First World War. Fields were turned into muddy bogs and little would grow. The delicate but resilient poppy, however, managed to carry on flourishing. In 1915, after losing a friend in the battle of Ypres, Belgium, a Canadian doctor was inspired to write the now famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.
Inspired by the poem, an American woman began to make and sell red silk poppies. They were then brought over to England and the Royal British Legion, formed in 1921, ordered nine million and sold them on 11 November. They sold out, raising £106,000 – £3,500,00 in today’s money.
The following year a poppy factory was set up employing disabled ex-servicemen. Today, the Legion’s warehouse in Aylesford, Kent, makes millions of poppies every year.
The old round pound coins were taken out of circulation on 16 October but the Poppy Appeal sellers will accept them. The Royal Mint estimates there are around £50m still in circulation.
The poppy today
In Germany and the Netherlands to name two countries, school children are assigned a war grave to tend for the duration of their studies. When they move on, they train another child to take over. It’s difficult to imagine that happening in the UK. In fact, it’s quite rare to see young people really engaging with Remembrance outside a select group of school children or cadets attending services to lay wreaths.
Having recently lost a childhood friend in Afghanistan, I once asked a (slightly older) colleague if he had watched the Remembrance service broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall; he laughed. A ridiculous question, clearly. He stopped when I told him about my friend and that his mum and sister had appeared on it. But the truth is that he probably wouldn’t be here if not for, say, his grandfather, and that will always be true for many of us.
But the more time that passes, the less connected children and young people are going to feel with the world wars. We are also becoming much more globalised which is a great thing but does the poppy mean the same thing to those who are from a culture that has no connection with it? If you didn’t grow up with it, it won’t be imprinted on your conscious in the way. Do kids and young people feel embarrassed to wear it, would their friends make fun of them? Lots of young people do wear the poppy but is it enough? Will their children wear it?