10 Nov 2021

Why we wear poppies

At this time of the year, red poppies are proliferating on lapels everywhere. These enduring symbols of remembrance actually emerged in the early 1920s in the wake of the devastation of World War I, inspired by the resilience of the poppies that continued to grow on the blasted battlefields of the western front. They became symbols of hope and regeneration.

When Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, saw these bright little flowers growing on the battlefields of Belgium, he wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’: ‘In Flanders field the poppies blow /Between the crosses row on row…’ The crosses he referred to were the simple wooden markers planted in the ground to commemorate the fallen. His poem, published in Punch magazine in December 1915, became instantly popular, and was cited at many funerals and memorials. Moina Michael, a professor at Georgia University, was inspired by the imagery of the poem and decided to craft silk poppies as an act of remembrance and to raise money for veterans. In 1920 the poppy was adopted as a symbol of soldiers lost in warfare in the US, and other countries adopted the practice, though they chose to commemorate the victims of war in different ways and on different days.

In Britain we have worn red poppies since 1921 on Remembrance Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the 11 November 1918 armistice – the guns finally fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. As the years have gone by, the poppy has become a symbol of military personnel who have died in subsequent wars as well as the First World War. Proceeds from sales of over 40 million poppies a year go to the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal, which supports all the armed services.

Remembrance Sunday always falls on the second Sunday in November, so this year it takes place on 14 November. The Royal Family lead the nation in a ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, where they lay wreaths of poppies, the Last Post is sounded by buglers of the Royal Marines, church services are held throughout the country and a two-minute silence is observed at 11am.

Poppy Etiquette

  • There is no fixed rule about when you should wear your poppy, but it is undoubtedly true that if you wear it for weeks beforehand it will lose its impact. The British Legion launched its 2021 appeal on 28 October, when it marked its centenary. Some say you should start to wear your poppy on 31 October, and ensure it is removed by Remembrance Sunday.
  • It is conventional to wear your poppy on your left-hand lapel, or on the left-hand side of your chest, in the same place that you would wear military medals.
  • Pin your poppy securely to your lapel – inadvertently trampling a poppy underfoot is not very respectful.
  • Above all, if you choose to wear a poppy in November, you must remember why you are wearing it.  Sporting a poppy is certainly not about virtue-signalling, and wearing one with scant regard for its symbolism is disrespectful and pointless.

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