A Memorial in Scarlet
The Poppy and the Ritual of Remembrance

During the recent conflict in Iraq, an article on the web site Times Online was headed, 'Fairford's B-52's bring death amid the poppies'.1 The journalist describes the 'scarlet poppies' which 'blazed across the banks of shallow streams'. By using such imagery, with its pastoral tones, and, it can be argued, deliberate emphasis on the poppy, the writer of this piece intends to evoke strong emotions located deep within the British national psyche, feelings constructed decades before, at the end of the First World War. The First World War, the Great War, is a historical event which brings forth images of mud, trench warfare, bungling generals, incomprehensibly large casualty lists, and of a generation of young men destroyed in their prime. Possibly foremost among these images, though, stands the poppy.
1 -  Times Online, 31st March, 2003.

Ask British people why the poppy has become such an important symbol of remembrance, and the reply is usually, 'It was in that poem', or, 'They bloomed on the fields of Flanders'. Yes, it was indeed a poem which established the poppy as remembrance symbol in the British national (and also international) consciousness, yet, this is only part of the story. This is too simple an explanation. There were other factors which also played a significant role in making this common flower the prominent symbol of remembrance.

It is also important to examine other factors that helped to create this prominence - the symbolism of the poppy, its use in literature, and its role in the ritual of remembrance. It is hoped that examining these elements will explain why the poppy is, especially in Britain, such an important remembrance symbol.

As a symbol, the poppy has ancient origins, much of which focus on the narcotic properties of the flower.2 Although the poppies of Flanders do not contain opium, the association with narcosis remains. This association is especially important in the ritual of remembrance, helping to console the bereaved.
2 - Even in Hollywood the symbolism of the poppy has not been missed. In the film the 'Wizard of Oz' from 1939, Dorothy falls asleep in a field of poppies.

Poppies have a long tradition within English literature, and it was literature which was to play a large part in defining the poppy's role as a remembrance symbol. Drawing on both this rich history, and on contemporary techniques and styles, enabled John McCrae to write 'In Flanders Fields'. It was by adhering to the 'fashion' in poetry in the early stages of the war, that McCrae was able to write a poem which was 'compatible' with the poetic tastes of the time, and make 'In Flanders Fields' so popular.

Even in the initial stages of the war, before the devastating power of industrialised warfare had truly become apparent, there was a need in Britain to remember those already killed - 'the fallen'. It is important to examine the poppy's function in the act of remembrance, through this, the actual act of remembrance comes under scrutiny, with questions being raised as to how much it serves to console, as much as to mask the terrible reality of death in war. By masking, it is meant that remembrance becomes a ritual used to 'blot out' the horrible reality of, in this case war, and the First World War in particular. Naturally, the truth is far too disturbing to continually be exposed, so the ritual of remembrance helps to create a more 'comfortable' memory of the deceased. This is most noticeable, for example, on Remembrance Sunday, when the wearing of an artificial poppy, and the two-minute silence in recognition of those who gave their lives, saves one from having to dwell on the specific details of the deaths of millions of men killed while serving their country.

This is not to say that this essay is an attempt to mock, or belittle the ritual of remembrance. On the contrary, it is more a response to the solemn gestures made every November, while the rest of the year is 'remembrance free'. It would be perhaps more fitting to reserve Remembrance Sunday for celebration, as this is when the 'War to end all wars' finally ground to a halt.3 Perhaps it would be more appropriate to save the solemn mood for such dates as, the anniversary of the first gas attack, the anniversary of the Somme, the first use of tanks, Verdun, or, the death of Wilfred Owen. These dates would indeed be days to be solemn and thankful to those 'who died so we may live'.
3 - It can be argued that the Festival of Remembrance, held in the Albert Hall achieves in part, this idea, yet it is still a solemn occasion, not a joyful event.

It is necessary to examine the symbolic background of the poppy before tracing its development from ordinary common flower to symbol of remembrance. Referring to the Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery by Ad de Vries,4 and combining it with the poetry and events of the First World War, many features appear which make the poppy a particularly suitable symbol for remembrance.
4 - Ad de Vries, p. 372.

As it is a flower which contains many seeds, the poppy has become a symbol of fertility. This idea of regeneration and renewal can be applied to the situation found in the First World War. Consider the nature of the conflict, the 'war of attrition', where the enemy was (supposedly) worn down by constant bombardments and attacks by infantry. Such tactics were costly in terms of casualties incurred, which created a cyclic effect of having large numbers of men slaughtered in battle replaced by large numbers of men, who, in turn, would also later be slaughtered in battle, only to be replaced by large numbers of men, and so on.

Perhaps the most important element symbolically is the association the poppy has with sleep and forgetfulness. Some species of poppies can be cultivated for their opiate properties, which gives the poppy its most prominent symbol - the narcotic, sleep-inducing qualities of the plant. In mythology, poppies grew on the banks of the River Lethe, a river in Greek mythology which flowed through Hades, which the souls of the dead are 'obliged to taste, that they may forget everything said and done when alive'.5 The word lethe itself is Greek, meaning 'forgetfulness'. This very forgetfulness is suitable as a symbol of remembrance, helping to mask the true nature of war, smothering terrible facts with numbing sleep. From this sleep comes consolation - another element important in remembrance. The loved one may be gone, but because of the forgetfulness caused by the poppy, the manner of the death becomes altered - the loved one is not killed in battle, but instead, has 'fallen'. Ad de Vries also notes that, 'Poppies can be found carved in church pews, denoting heavenly sleep'.6 It was this use of the poppy as a symbol of sleep which made John McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields' so powerful, and ultimately, so popular.
5 - Brewer's, p. 637.
6 - Ad de Vries, p. 372.

Another aspect that makes the poppy important is its very commonness. Poppies grow virtually anywhere, and because the poppy is found in such large numbers, it is fitting that it is a symbol strongly associated with the first major industrialised war, where everything was done on a large scale: bombardments, attacks, battles, casualty lists. Here poppies can be used to symbolise the masses of soldiers who fell in battle. Poppies, like those who enlisted in the army, are also easily obtained, due to their very availability. Indeed, the throngs of men standing to enlist outside army recruiting offices seen in many photographs from the initial stages of the First World War, can be likened to masses of poppies found on the battlefield. Poppies need no preening or cultivating, they grow, unlike the finer rose, without having to be trained or tended. Poppies are a short-lived flower - indeed, here it symbolises well the soldiers - the life expectancy of the front line troops was also very brief.

Such is the strength of the poppy as a symbol of the war, that, slightly clichéd perhaps, the picture on the cover of the Penguin Book of First World War Poetry from 1979 is that of several scarlet poppies on a black background. The majority of the poppies are drooping, but, interestingly, there are a couple of new shoots, complete with buds. These drooping poppies can be seen to represent the dying, or dead soldiers, while the newer poppies, those with buds, represent the coming generation. The title of the book is in small print, as if wishing not to intrude upon the effect of the poppies. Indeed, it would be possible to omit the title altogether, such is the strength of the poppy symbol.

The poppy symbol has a long tradition in English literature, with many references to the sleep-inducing, oblivion-creating features of the flower, or, on its fertility properties. The following examples illustrate how the poppy has been used in English literature, right up to the First World War. It is interesting to compare these examples with the poems from the war to be discussed later in this essay.

William Shakespeare writes in 'Othello',

Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep ...' (III, iii, 330).

These narcotic/sleep-inducing properties are also found in 'To Autumn' by John Keats from 1819, 'Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep/Drowsed with the fumes of poppies ...' (ll. 16-17).

The Scot, Robert Burns, mentions the many seeds of the poppies, emphasising the fertility symbolism, 'But pleasures are like poppies spread/You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed ...' 'Tam O'Shanter' (ll. 59-60).

In the poem, 'The Poppy', published in August 1891, Francis Thompson details the properties of sleep and oblivion the poppy possesses: 'Till it grew lethargied ...' (stanza 3), 'the flower/ Of sleep brings wakening to me/And of oblivion, memory' (stanza 8),

'... this withering flower of dreams' (stanza 11), 'the sleep-flower ...' (stanza 16), '... the sun-hazed sleeper' (stanza 17). It is the lines of the second stanza which, considering they were written over twenty years before the First World War, seem most ominous, almost acting as a warning to the generation to follow.

With burnt mouth, red like a lion's it drank
The blood of the sun as he slaughtered sank,
And dipped its cup in the purpurate shine
When the Eastern conduits ran with wine.

The image of the slaughtered sun bleeding to provide drink for the poppy becomes even more relevant when contrasted with some of the poetry to emerge from the First World War, and makes it even more startling as an image of blood sacrifice.

Paul Fussell mentions Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse and how it played an important role in the First World War, presiding 'over the Great War in a way which has never been sufficiently appreciated',7 with half the book consisting of poems about flowers. Such poetry would act as a basis for poets in the conflict, inspiring them to describe their emotions, usually, along the same lines. The poetry produced during the war, on the whole, can be regarded as being a product of contemporary poetry, with the theme of nature featuring strongly. It is only natural, then, that the soldier-poets would write about that which they saw about them: larks, the sun, mud, and fields of poppies, although, as will be discussed below, perhaps a different poetic style may have been more appropriate in describing the conflict.
7 - Paul Fussell, p. 159

But what was the cultural climate which inspired the poets to write in such a way, using nature as a way of describing the war? To discover this, it is important to focus on the Britain from which the war-poets emerged.

British society, as it had existed since Tudor times, was, by the start of the 20th century, in a state of upheaval and disintegration.8 Victoria had died, replaced by Edward VII, whose reign was considered indulgent and vulgar, where extravagance and luxury were highly valued (by those who could afford it). In 1910, Edward died, and George V acceded to the throne, and Britain entered an age which now seems to have been naïvely innocent, golden and stable - almost utopian before the First World War shattered such idyllic imagery, sowing the seed, perhaps forever, of a cynical weariness. This 'golden' era saw the rise of the Georgian poets, not revolutionary as such,9 but more followers of a phase in the revival of poetry which had parallels with the resurgence of Liberal England during Edward's reign.10 This revival was to fade gradually, mirroring the dying out of the liberal spirit in politics in the years 1911 to 1919. The publication by Edward Marsh in 1912 of Georgian Poetry, the first in a series, reveals a very insular collection, with no reference to contemporary British life. No factories or machines are mentioned in the poetry. Instead, poetry is seen more as being the work of a craftsman, working along traditional lines. As Vivian de Sola Pinto notes, 'poetry becomes a pastime for the governing class'.11 Innovation was discouraged, replaced by a preference for concentrating on pleasant sensations in an imitation of the Romantic poets. Wordsworth was a major influence, but the poetry of the Georgians 'lacks the intensity of vision which transmuted Wordsworth's descriptions of nature into great art. Consequently, they are often accused of sentimental pastoralism or "weekend ruralism"'.12 This imitation of Romantic poetry, with its emphasis on the countryside, created an interest in pastoral poetry, yet the pastoralism practised by the Georgians, says de Sola Pinto, is unlike the Elizabethan pastoralism of the 16th century, which is a celebration of the countryside. The pastoralism of the Georgians is more of a retreat from the pressures of modern life. They use the countryside as a means to escape from the realities of the modern world. The Georgian poets took with them into battle the poetic style they knew, transferring images of floral scenes from pasture to battlefield. Indeed, it was almost inevitable that the Georgian poets would continue writing in this vein during the conflict. The Georgian style is considered to be wholly unsuitable for modern industrialised war, because focus on nature can detract from the horror of war, yet it was the only 'tool' the poets had to hand in describing such a situation. The poets who perhaps could best have tackled the awful truth acted out in Flanders and northern France in a new way, were either too old, as in the case of Thomas Hardy, 'foreign', as with TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, or, deemed unfit for service, as with DH Lawrence.
8 - Vivian de Sola Pinto, p.112.
9 - Jon Silkin cites CK Stead who maintains that many of the younger Georgian poets were indeed literary revolutionaries, and were included by Edward Marsh in the Georgian Poets anthologies in an attempt to show to the reading public the existence of a 'more genuine poetry'. Jon Silkin, p. 65.
10 - Vivian de Sola Pinto, p. 130.
11 -Ibid
12 - Encylopedia of Poetry and Poetics, p. 311

Nature features strongly in the poetry of the First World War, whether it be the countryside, with descriptions of war torn landscapes, or birds, with emphasis on the lark and the nightingale, or the sky and 'heavens' - all of which, as mentioned above, can be attributed to the influence of the Georgian poets. It is, then, not unreasonable to suggest that the importance of the poppy as a symbol of the conflict can be regarded as emerging from Georgian poetry. Even two years before the war, 'Georgian focus was appearing to narrow down to the red flowers, especially roses and poppies, whose blood-colours would become an indispensable part of the symbolism of the war'.13 Nature was an important element used to mask the reality of war, while the war also created a heightened awareness of nature, leading to nature becoming, as George L Mosse describes, 'an integral element in the Myth of the War Experience'.14 For Mosse, nature is used in two ways: as an agent used to direct attention away from the impersonality of modern warfare - making it become a thing eternal. Secondly, nature can be used to turn one's attention homewards, 'to a life of innocence and peace'. Another feature of nature is how it symbolises, 'the genuine, sadness, and resurrection ... [and] an immortality that could be shared by the soldier and that [which] legitimised wartime sacrifice'. 15
13 - Paul Fussell, p.243.
14 - George L Mosse, p. 107.

15 - Ibid., p. 109.

The huge losses incurred during the battle of the Somme helped to establish the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, yet, although it bloomed on both sides, it was the British who eventually were to adopt the flower. It is interesting to note here that, in contrast, the Germans preferred to remember their fallen by creating a park containing trees and shrubs to commemorate the dead,known as 'heroes' groves' (Heldenhaine).16 Unlike the French and British, the Germans did not use flowers for remembrance, turning instead to trees and wood. Here the differences in remembrance are noticeable, with the British, whose soldier poets drew on an Arcadian, pastoral tradition, which did not need to 'draw analogies with a faraway national past', while the Germans used wood and trees to emphasise 'historical continuity and rootedness'.17 This difference may be due to the perceptions of national identity between the two countries. Britain was an 'old', established country, head of the largest empire in the history of mankind, while Germany was still a 'young' nation, only having been unified under Bismarck in 1871. Therefore, it could be argued that the British were perhaps more 'self-assured' in their national identity, and could instead adopt a less 'solid' symbol whereas the Germans needed to assert their national identity and turned to the 'roots' symbolism of the tree. These differing symbols of remembrance can be compared with the war aims of Britain and Germany. Modris Eksteins addresses this difference in Rites of Spring,18 where Germany, a 'young' nation, viewed the First World War as a war to change the world. Any explanation needed for the war was, as Eksteins says, 'directed inward and toward the future. Perhaps most importantly, the Germans saw the war as a spiritual conflict'. The British, however, as the 'older' nation, fought the war to preserve both a world and social values. It was these values and ideals, continues Eksteins, which the, 'pre-war avant-garde had so bitterly attacked: notions of justice, dignity, civility, restraint, and "progress" governed by a respect for law'.19 In effect, the Germans were 'propelled by a vision, the British by a legacy'.20 This 'vision versus legacy' is highlighted in The Shock of the New by Ian Dunlop. Discussing modern art in Germany, Dunlop notes this 'fresh' German attitude,

Before the First World War Germany could be proud of the open-mindedness and adventurousness of a few of her artists, critics, and collectors ... British critics and collectors could only stop and stare at this display of modernity. Their tastes remained provincial and lagged several years behind the more progressive- minded Germans. 21

16 - George L Mosse, p. 43.
17 - Ibid., p. 111.
18 - Modris Eksteins, pp. 118-119.
19 - Ibid., p. 118.
20 - Modris Eksteins, p. 119.
21 - Ian Dunlop, p. 226.

Whether in the shape of a poppy, or a grove, it is nature's constant cycle of rejuvenation, from death to life again which makes it such an important element in the act of remembrance where this cycle serves to underline the fact that 'life goes on'.

Considering the poetic sensibility at the start of the war, with the Georgians' reluctance to accommodate the modern world in their work, and their use of poetry to 'escape' back to a time past, a 'golden age', then it is almost inevitable that this sense of longing would be represented in their poetry. Only seven weeks into the conflict, before trench warfare became a deadly type of 'stalemate', Lawrence Binyon wrote 'For the Fallen', a poem dedicated to those who had been killed. This solemn poem is an elegy to the young men who went to war with 'straight limbs, and true, steady and glowing eyes'. In dying, they fell with their faces turned to the enemy, they were not backing down. England mourns these lost sons, the brave who fought 'in the cause of the free'. The most poignant part of the poem is found in stanza four, famously recited during the Festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall before the masses of poppies flutter onto the people below,

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Binyon's 'immortal lines' were so popular with those who visited the battlefields after the war, because, as David Lloyd, referring to such tourists as 'pilgrims', suggests, they 'asserted that the memory of the dead would travel into the future with them'22 while Nils Arne Sørensen says that Rupert Brooke's '1914 Sonnets' are 'the most famous and influential British example of 'anticipated remembrance'.23 Geoff Dyer also considers this: 'Even while it was raging, the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to a time when it would be remembered'.24 [Author's italics]. This need for remembrance, even at this early stage of the war, would give rise to an accompanying symbol, not only to pay tribute to the dead, but as mentioned above, also to salute the passing of an old order, the 'idyllic' pre-industrial age. That the modern, industrialised war proved to be so devastating shook the survivors of all sides, perhaps even hastened the need for a symbol to represent this sentiment.
22 - David Lloyd, p. 138.
23 - Nils Arne Sørensen, pp. 12-13.
24 - Geoff Dyer, p. 15.

What makes this so interesting is that both Binyon's and Brooke's poems were written at a point in the war where the often-quoted 'disillusionment' (namely from the 1st July, 1916, with the Battle of the Somme) has yet to materialise, and with it, the emergence in literary history of the three 'heavyweights' of anti-war poetry, namely Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg. This seems to indicate that the British public were already in need of a memorial even while the war was, on the whole, considered to be just and right. This source of this 'justness' arising from the manner in which Britain entered the war - as a reaction to the 'German aggression' of invading Belgium. This reaction, as A.J.P. Taylor notes, made Britain 'the only Allied Power to declare war on Germany, instead of the other way round'.25 Yet, to fight on the side of 'right' is an abstract idea, offering no physical object to direct one's energies. The British, unlike their Belgian and French counterparts, had little tangible evidence at home that they were fighting a war. There was no foreign invader on their land, no hordes of refugees. Therefore, the British people could not employ a 'repel the invader from our country' stance, even if the popular press did, occasionally, use stories based on 'fears of a German invasion'. Britain did suffer from air-raids by Zeppelin airships, and east coast towns were shelled by German battleships, but the bulk of the action was 'over there on the Continent'. Such a lack of a real presence of war creates a need for something to compensate for that which is missing. The lamentations of Brooke and Binyon were popular, not only as they recalled an idyllic golden age since lost, but because they also 'filled the void' created by this lack.
25 - A.J.P. Taylor, p. 21.

This 'lack' was to be truly compensated by the publication of what was to become the most popular poem of the war, 'In Flanders Fields' by John McCrae. This poem continues the Georgian tradition, with its emphasis on nature, and the focus on red flowers, and it is not too extreme to consider this work as the defining element in establishing the poppy as the symbol of the First World War (and subsequently, the Second World War, and other conflicts). 'In Flanders Fields' appeared in Punch in December, 1915. It was published anonymously, though John McCrae was credited as being the author in the index of that year.26 It was indeed written by McCrae, a Canadian Medical Officer, during the Second Battle of Ypres in May, 1915. Its sentiments correspond well with the sentiment of such poems as Rupert Brooke's sonnet 'The Soldier', a time 'before the monstrous slaughter turned the poetry of the fighting soldiers to bitterness, disillusion, anger pity or escapism'27 - that is to say, before the 'protest poetry' of Wilfred Owen,28 Siegfried Sassoon, or Isaac Rosenberg. John F Prescott says that the poem was written 'according to some accounts'29 as a response to the news of the death of McCrae's friend, Alex Helmer. This is McCrae's famous poem,

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 your 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 'rigourously regular meter with which the poem introduces the poppies', notes Paul Fussell, 'makes them already seem fabricated of wire and paper'.30 The poem has a solemn, almost murmuring tone, and although not quite as 'lofty' as Brooke's 'Soldier', with its 'If I should die' melodrama, it does mirror the tone in Brooke's poem. 'In Flanders Fields', the poet is dead, there is indeed a corner of a foreign field that is forever England. There is no mention of how the poet died, only that now he and his colleagues lie in Flanders fields. This is far removed from the agonising descriptions of death found in the 'protest poetry' to come, where death in battle was a horrible, bloody, gory, destroying horror.
26 - John F Prescott, p. 105
27 - Ibid, p. 106.
28 - There is only one poem by Wilfred Owen where poppies are mentioned, 'Long Ages Past'. John Stallworthy, citing Dennis Welland, notes that ' the real motivation behind the poem seems to have been only a surfeit of Swinburne and Wilde', p.70.

29 - John F Prescott, p. 95.
30 - Paul Fussell, p. 249.

It is possible to split the poem into two parts - the first two stanzas, and the third, final stanza. In the first two stanzas, the image is almost of young innocents, now dead, after having lived and loved only days before,. Fussell notes that the images in this poem are gathered together to create a 'mellow, if automatic, pastoralism' with red flowers - in this case poppies - found in elegy, crosses which suggest sacrifice, the sky, an opposition between the song of the larks and the firing guns on the ground, the use of the dawn and of sunset.31 It was almost inevitable that with such adept use of imagery, McCrae would cause a reaction in his readers, and is quite possibly the reason why the poem became so popular.
31 - Paul Fussell, p. 249.

It is the third stanza which arouses greatest interest. Here the mood jolts the reader from the sombre theme of remembrance found in the first two stanzas, to a stirring 'keep the faith' challenge.32 The poem is written in iambic tetrameter, that is, four iambs per line,33 yet the third stanza breaks this pattern with the introduction of a trochee in the initial position. In contrast to the unstressed-stressed syllabic foot of an iamb, a trochee is a reversal of this - producing a foot comprising a stressed syllable-unstressed syllable. In Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, Paul Fussell reveals that such a feature has the effect of producing sudden movement or a change in tone, and can 'enlighten suddenly', or 'surprise'.34 This effect is evident in the third stanza where the poet indeed does surprise with a plea to his reader. It seems that the poet has forgotten the reason as to why he is one of 'the Dead' - as a casualty of war - and instead urges others to 'take up the quarrel'. When considering the first two stanzas, the sudden inclusion of this plea seems very strange, altering the direction of the poem from that of solemn recollection to a 'keep the faith' challenge.
32 - The Peace Pledge Union web site says about this stanza, 'Nowadays the last stanza is often left out, because of its belligerence',
33 - It can also be argued that the final line in the first stanza breaks with this iambic pattern and instead starts with a spondee - two stresses in succession. This slows the metre, adding emphasis to the solemn tone of the poem, and creating an effect of the booming guns.
34 - Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, p. 49.

'With failing hands' the poet passes the torch on to those who must follow.35 Fussell has a problem with this imagery of passing the torch, saying that this image does not correspond with that which has gone before, going so far as to say that the torch 'suggests only Emma Lazarus'. It is her poem, 'The New Colossus' which is engraved on a bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty - 'Give me your tired, Your poor, Your huddling masses ... I lift my lamp beside the golden door!' However, it would be more reasonable to consider McCrae's torch as a symbol of light, with its passing being an action to continue 'the cause'. This idea is furthered with the ominous announcement that if the cause be broken, then those who lie in the fields of Flanders will not sleep, even though poppies grow in the fields where they lay. Fussell says that this seems to be 'grievously out of contact' with the symbolism of the first two stanzas, contradicting the image of the poppy as 'sleep-inducer' and the contained rhetoric within would not be out of place in a propaganda argument, or on a recruiting poster.36 Indeed, 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori'37 would not seem out of place in such a stanza.
35 - To read this poem nearly 90 years later, the lines in 'This Be The Verse' by Philip Larkin from 1971 seem particularly apt: 'Man hands misery on to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf'. Naturally, modern readers have the benefit of hindsight, yet the comparison is effective, especially when considering the terrible battles that lay ahead in the First World War.
36 - Paul Fussell, p. 250.
37 - 'It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country' - famously used by Wilfred Owen in the climax to his poem, 'Dulce et decorum Est'.

'In Flanders Fields' became a source of inspiration for many people, reinforcing their sense of duty to the cause. It is surely no accident that Punch, under the guidance of Owen Seaman,38 first published the poem, McCrae having previously tried the Spectator, only to have it returned. The poem came at a time when, as John Prescott notes, hatred of the Germans was at a high, with such events as the sinking of the passenger ship the Lusitania by German submarines, Zeppelin raids over Britain, and the use of poison gas in battle all contributing to this feeling. The poem gave encouragement to the British to keep fighting in order to avenge, as John Prescott says, the 'increasing and staggering numbers of British war dead, soldiers and civilians alike'.39 'In Flanders Fields' made the poppy 'the symbol of oblivion, inseparable from the experience of the First World War',40 giving, 'expression to a mood which at the time was universal, and will remain as a permanent record when the mood is passed away'.41 This may help modern readers understand how people could maintain the 'keep on fighting' stance when the conflict had developed into a nightmarish, deadlocked war of attrition. The poem's function became to act as both a comfort and an inspiration to those who read it. The poem was especially popular in the United States upon entering the war, inspiring people to write replies.42 McCrae also received many requests to use the poem in order to 'raise money for the cause'.
38 - Seaman had originally been interested in making Punch a more accessible paper. However, he became more conservative, and this was reflected in the paper . satirical.htm
39 - John F Prescott, p. 105.
40 - Ibid, pp. 105-106.
41 - Ibid., citing a letter to Billy (Turner?), p. 106
42 - A selection of these replies can be found in the appendix

It was the actions of one woman, Moina Michael, on the 9th of November, 1918, only two days before the Armistice, which was to prove instrumental in establishing the poppy as the definitive symbol of the war.44 On this day, while working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries Headquarters in New York, Moina Michael found the poem on a page marked in a copy of the 'Ladies Home Journal' left by a passing soldier. She read the poem, at the time titled 'We Shall Not Sleep', and was immediately taken by its content, especially the final stanza, with its message of keeping the faith. Michael wrote a reply to the poem, 'We Shall Keep the Faith', and became involved in an enthusiastic campaign to establish the poppy as a 'Memorial symbol' for her 'buddies sleeping in Flanders.' Michael felt compelled to establish the poppy, 'that crimson cup flower of Flanders, which caught the sacrificial blood of ten million men dying for the Peace of the World'.45 From this point on, Moina Michael pledged to keep faith with the dead soldiers, and to wear a poppy always.46 Michael's 'zeal' is revealed in her explanation as to why it was so important to adopt the poppy,

Again came thoughts of the Rainbow, of the Sacred Cup of the Last Supper - divine symbols.
And this silken petalled flower of the battle fronts of 1914-1918 was dyed a deeper crimson by the blood of men making the supreme sacrifice for generations of men yet unborn. There could be no other symbol!

44 - Interestingly, on this day, while Moina Michael was reading McCrae's poem, the Prussian monarchy was being dissolved, and Kaiser Wilhelm ll was escaping into Holland. A.J.P. Taylor, p. 176.
45 - Moina Michael, p. 84
46 - Thanks must go to the dedicated staff at the SDU library in Odense, and the staff at the University Library in Wisconsin, who made Michael's book available to me, because not only was it useful as research, but it had been dedicated on the 8th August, 1941, to 'CJ Haden and His Fair Lady' by none other, to my delight, than - 'Moina Michael "The Poppy Lady"' It added an extra dimension to be using a book which had been in contact with the author.
47 - Moina Michael, p. 84.

Michael was able to persuade many societies and organisations, through approaching people personally, and by post, to adopt the poppy during the years immediately after the war. Interestingly, when considering the importance of the poppy symbol in Britain, it was not until the autumn of 1921 that the Royal British Legion adopted the poppy, as part of Earl Haig's British Legion Appeal Fund. Bob Bushaway citing The Times from 14th November, 1921, notes that this adoption was not welcome by everyone. Upon unveiling the memorial to the fallen at Beaumont College, Old Windsor, Bushaway points out that General Sir G.M. Macdonaugh publicly stated that the poppy was 'a pagan flower, it was the emblem of the dead and the last thing they wanted to do was to forget them'.48
48 - Bob Bushaway 'Name upon Name: The Great War and Remembrance' in Roy Porter Myths of the English, p. 155.

The Oxford Book of Phrase and Fable mentions a work from 1889, The Folk-Lore of Plants, by TH Thistleton. In this book, Thistleton notes the 'tradition that the red poppies which grew on the field at Waterloo after it was ploughed sprang from the blood shed during the battle of 1815'.49 The web site 'poppiesinternational' refers to the poppies during the Napoleonic wars as the 'mysterious flower that bloomed around the fresh graves of fallen soldiers'.50 This tradition is continued in 'Break of Day in the Trenches' by Isaac Rosenberg. According to Jon Silkin, a finished version of this poem was probably completed by the end of July, 1916,51 six months after 'In Flanders Fields'. Originally, the poem was titled 'In the Trenches'. In this poem, the poet takes 'two bright red poppies' from the edge of the parapet, of which one 'blood red poppy' the poet gives away 'to you'. A shell explodes, and the poet, choked, sees 'trench floor poppies/Strewn. Smashed you lie'. This is a simple poem, with emphasis on the poppy symbolising both blood, and dead soldiers. The poem was reworked - Rosenberg was conscious that 'the simple juxtaposition of death and blood-red poppies was banal', and created a 'meditation on war in which humanity on both sides is judged sardonically, and whose fragility and beauty are emphasised by the poppies'.52
49 - The Oxford Book of Phrase and Fable, p. 372.
50 -
51 - Jon Silkin, p. 276.
52 - Jean Liddiard, p. 211.

'Break of Day in the Trenches' contains two descriptions of the poppy - as a single flower, and in a mass. Rosenberg's poppies are much more 'active' than those found in McCrae's poem. Consider the lines, 'Poppies whose roots are in man's veins/Drop and are ever dropping' at the conclusion of the poem. Here the roots of the poppies are in the veins of the dead men, thus gaining nourishment for new flowers to grow from the blood of the dead. By growing out of the veins - that is, the blood of the dead soldiers that has soaked into the earth, it is almost as if the petals of the poppy have become bloodstained. John Silkin describes this occurrence of the poppies being 'bloodstained' as being a 'common fantasy', with Rosenberg taking this idea a step further. The poppy gives man the 'ambiguous gift' of mortality for nourishing both the plant and the flower, creating a cycle where the poppies 'feed off man but they feed off his mortality, and therefore emphasise it'.53 [Author's italics]. That the poppies continue to grow is a reminder of the soldiers who fell before, the physical evidence strengthening remembrance.
53 - Jon Silkin, p. 280.

This cycle of renewal is emphasised by Bernard Bergonzi, who, as mentioned above, notes that the poppies are short-lived flowers 'but their transience is scarcely more than that of the men who are constantly dropping in their midst'.54 This adds strength to the imagery employed by Rosenberg. The soldier at the front had an extremely short life expectancy, so, by using the poppy, flowers which, 'Drop and are ever dropping', Rosenberg comments on the plight of the soldiers at the front. JM Gregson suggests that here Rosenberg may be hinting that man and poppy may fall together, which further stresses the delicate and short life of both subjects.55 This tone of life's frailty in such atrocious conditions continues with the last line, where the poppy plucked from the trench parapet is safe, yet 'just a little white with the dust'. This image of turning to dust is perhaps an opposition to the poppies which bloom on the battlefield. Although removed from immediate danger, the poppy selected by the poet is to wither, die and turn merely to dust, unlike those that have their 'roots in man's veins'. For the poppy to succeed as a symbol of remembrance, it is important that it is clearly seen to be a symbol of rejuvenation, and not an object liable to fade and turn to dust. By using the image of dust, Rosenberg may be consciously stating that men do not, like the poppies, rise up again, but merely turn to dust, gone forever. Whether he was making a statement about McCrae's poem is uncertain, but Rosenberg's image of this single poppy, safe behind his ear, yet still frail and vulnerable, contrasts with McCrae's more sturdy 'blowing poppies'.
54 - Bernard Bergonzi, p. 112.
55 - J.M. Gregson, p. 65

How the dead are remembered and the condition of those who survived, are concerns in Herbert Read's, 'A Short Poem for Armistice Day'. In this poem, Read describes the men who make the artificial poppies for Armistice Day (which is, incidentally, also known as 'Poppy Day'). There are some interesting contrasts in this poem between the artificial poppies, living poppies, and the dead soldiers.

The manufactured poppies contain no seed, and cannot reproduce - they are sterile objects. It is possible to suggest that Read is commenting on the incredible loss of life in the war, drawing on Owen's 'Parable of the Old Man and the Young'56 where 'Half the seed of Europe is wiped out'. These poppies, unlike Rosenberg's, will never have their roots in man's veins. They have tendrils of wire, which grip a buttonhole. This idea of rootlessness can represent the wiping out of youth, the millions of young men who died before having a chance to make their mark on the world, indeed, before even having the chance to produce offspring.
56 - There is some discrepancy as to the actual title of this poem. In some works, the 'Man' is titled 'Men'. Referring to John Stallworthy's extensive work, Wilfred Owen: The Complete Poems and Fragments, the title he uses is 'Man'.

That the war utilised industry to increase the destructive power of weapons added a devastating dimension to the conflict where soldiers too, were 'mass-produced' for the battlefield. But the major difference is that men are not replicas of living things, but genuine - they live, then die, not preserved forever in a seedless, scentless, unfading memory. Read contrasts the artificial poppies with real flowers, expanding this to include men, 'and men like flowers are cut/and withered on a stem' (ll. 23-24).

Read's poem contrasts strongly with Binyon's 'For the Fallen', seeming to echo the sentiment of 'They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old', while emphasising what it means to remember those who died. Certainly, by buying and wearing the manufactured poppy, we remember the fallen soldiers, even give thanks that they gave their lives, without much thought as to who they were, what they did, how they died, and even what they might have become. It is perhaps the greatest paradox that it took the war to produce such acclaimed poets as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, men who 'bloomed' and tragically died in the conflict.

It was while doing research for this essay that I came across a link to a web site which detailed the work of a plastic surgeon who tended to the maimed and disfigured men of the First World War. This site was described as being, 'Not for the squeamish', containing harrowing pictures of those poor, unfortunate men - the soldiers who Siegfried Sassoon's women would regard as not having their wounds in a 'mentionable place'.57 I was shocked by this reminder that such wounds did occur - it was as if, by tracing the development of the poppy as a First World War symbol I had become distanced from my real subject - war, a truly awful and hideous event. The poppy had acted as a mask, creating forgetfulness, also shielding me from the truth. Indeed, the facial reconstructions were also sometimes covered by masks, the doctors being unable to successfully 'patch up' the worst of the injuries.
57 - Siegfried Sassoon, 'Glory of Women'.

This masking of the awful truth of war, by blotting out the unpleasant realities, allows remembrance to become an act of forgetting, evoking the very essence of the poppy's symbolic themes - the narcotic, forgetful elements. Remembrance, then, is not simply an act of remembering, but more a ritual used to 'smother' the unpleasant memories. This smothering becomes almost literal during the Festival of Remembrance, where a million poppies representing the fallen are released from the roof and flutter down from 'on high' to the floor, a process which takes several minutes.58
58 - These poppies are actually red petal-shaped pieces of paper.

The poem which best seems to capture the theme of masking and forgetfulness is 'To His Love' by that most tragic of the war poets, Ivor Gurney, a man who survived the war, but remained haunted by its memories. Without mentioning any specific flower, Gurney describes succinctly the role of the poppy in remembrance. These lines conclude the poem,

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers -
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

Naturally, remembrance as an act of forgetting the gruesome details of warfare is important and necessary for those affected directly by war. What must be hoped for is that future generations will not become ignorant of the awful realities of war by the masking element of remembrance. While solemnly observing the two minutes' silence on Remembrance Sunday, and wearing the poppy, it is also important to question more than simply why this ceremony takes place at all, but to use remembrance as a way to raise awareness of the truth of war in an attempt to prevent future wars. In this way, it can only be hoped that the popular cry of 'Never Again' used at the end of the First World War (itself described after the Armistice as being, 'The War To End All Wars') may become a reality. Perhaps only then will there be a fitting monument of remembrance for the millions of people who died.

APPENDIX 1 - 'In Flanders Fields' and Replies to the Poem

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 your 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.

John McCrae

We Shall Keep the Faith

Oh! You who sleep in Flanders' fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew,
We caught the torch you threw,
And holding high we kept
The faith with those who died.
We cherish too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valour led.

It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders' fields.

And now the torch and poppy red
Wear in honour of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught
We've learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders' fields.

Moina Michael

Oh! sleep in peace where poppies grow;
The torch your falling hands let go
Was caught by us, again held high,
A beacon light in Flanders' sky
That dims the stars to those below.
Your are our dead, you held the foe
And ere the poppies cease to blow,
We'll prove our faith in you who lie
In Flanders' fields.

Oh! rest in peace, we quickly go
To you who bravely died, and know
In other fields was heard the cry,
For freedom's cause, of you who lie,
So still asleep where poppies grow,
In Flanders' fields.

As in rumbling sound, to and fro,
The lightning flashes, sky aglow,
The mighty hosts appear, and high
Above the din of battle cry,
Scarce heard amidst the guns below,
Are fearless hearts who fight the foe,
And guard the place where poppies grow.
Oh! sleep in peace, all you who lie
In Flanders' fields.

And still the poppies gently blow,
Between the crosses, row on row.
The larks, still bravely soaring high,
Are singing now their lullaby
To you who sleep where poppies grow
In Flanders' fields.

John Mitchell

In Flanders' fields the cannons boom,
And fitful flashes light the gloom;
While up above, like eagles, fly
The fierce destroyers of the sky;
With stains the earth wherein you lie
Is redder than the poppy bloom,
In Flanders' fields.

Sleep on, ye brave! The shrieking shell,
The quaking trench, the startling yell,
The fury of the battle hell
Shall wake you not, for all is well;
Sleep peacefully, for all is well.

Your flaming torch aloft we bear,
With burning heart and oath we swear
To keep the faith, to fight it through,
To crush the foe, or sleep with you,
In Flanders' fields.

J. A. Armstrong

America's Answer

Rest ye in peace, ye Flanders' dead.
The fight that ye so bravely led
We've taken up. And we will keep
True faith with you who lie asleep
With a cross to mark his bed,
In Flanders' fields.

Fear not that ye have died for naught.
The torch ye threw to us we caught.
Ten million hands will hold it high,
And Freedom's light shall never die!
We've learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders' fields.

R.W. Lilliard

APPENDIX 2 - Poems mentioned in this essay

In the Trenches

I snatched two poppies
From the parapet's ledge,
Two bright red poppies
That winked on the ledge.

Behind my ear
I stuck one through,
One blood red poppy
I gave to you.

The sandbags narrowed
And screwed out our jest,
And tore the poppy
You had on your breast...
Down - a shell - O! Christ,
I am blind, I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn. Smashed you lie.

Isaac Rosenberg

Break of Day in the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away -
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand -
A queer sardonic rat -
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies
(And God knows what antipathies).
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German -
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
Less chanced than you for life;
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver - what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

Isaac Rosenberg

A Short Poem for Armistice Day

Gather or take fierce degree
trim the lamp set out for sea
here we are at the workman's entrance
clock in and shed your eminence.

Notwithstanding, work it diverse ways
work it diverse ways, multiplying four digestions
here we make artificial flowers
of paper tin and metal thread.

One eye one leg one arm one lung
a syncopated sick heart-beat
the record is not nearly worn
that weaves a background to our work.

I have no power therefore have patience
These flowers have no sweet scent
no lustre in the petal no increase
from fetilizing flies and bees.

No seed they have no seed
their tendrils are of wire and grip
the buttonhole the lip
and never fade

And will not fade though life
and lustre go in genuine flowers
and men like flowers are cut
and withered on a stem.
And will not fade a year or more
I stuck one on a candlestick
and there it clings about the socket
I have no power therefore have patience.

Herbert Read

To His Love

He's gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We'll walk no more on Cotswold
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn river
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now...
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

Ivor Gurney


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