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At this time of year we are accustomed to the sight of red poppies, whether in lapels, fashioned into paper wreathes or, to commemorate the centenary of the start of the Great War, as one of 888,246 ceramic poppies currently spilling across the moat of the Tower of London.

But few people realise that the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance began not in Great Britain, but in America. In November 1918, Moina Michael was working as a secretary at a conference held at the YMCA Overseas War headquarters. Leafing through a magazine, she read John McCrae’s poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’ (then entitled ‘We Shall Not Sleep’) with its evocative opening lines, ‘In Flanders fields, the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row’. When, later that day, she was given $10 by delegates grateful for her attempts to cheer the office up with flowers, she spent the money on red silk poppies which people then asked to wear. Since the group had given her the money with which to buy the flowers, Moina saw this as the first sale of remembrance poppies.

She then threw her energy into having the poppy emblem adopted as a national memorial but, surprisingly given its current popularity, no group or organisation wanted to take it up. Undaunted, Moina continued her efforts for the next two years until, in August 1920, the Georgia arm of the American Legion – formed the previous year by US veterans in order to support those who had served in wartime Europe – met in Atlanta. She sought out the delegates beforehand and, through dint of her persistence, the Georgia American Legion adopted the poppy. It also endorsed a wider campaign and, later that year. the National American Legion agreed on the use of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy as the United States national emblem of remembrance.

The poppy had, however, still not reached these shores and the fact that it did is due to French woman, Anna Guérin, who was present when the American Legion made its decision. She thought that the poppy could be used not simply as a sign of remembrance, but also to raise money for the French who were suffering as a result of the war and she organised French women, children and veterans to make artificial poppies out of cloth.

She then took her idea across the world and, in 1921, persuaded Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, founder of the British Legion, to adopt the Flanders Poppy as an emblem for the Legion. The first British Poppy Day Appeal was launched in 1921, three years after the Armistice, with proceeds from the sales of the flowers being given to ex-servicemen in need of welfare and financial support, a practice which continues to this day.

So, when you pin your poppy on this year and watch members of the Armed Forces and veterans march with their wreathes, remember those whose loss and sacrifice is symbolised by that tiny cheery flower, and two women who were determined that remembrance should continue through the years. For poppies do still grow in the tumbled fields of Flanders and, each year, as the soil continues to give up its dead, the crosses too still grow.

-Blue

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