Up to 10 million soldiers were killed in the First World War. It’s not known how many civilians died as well, but the estimate is 1.4 million. In 1919 the traumatised survivors of the fighting began to find their way home.
Everyone who fought in Belgium and northern France had noticed the extraordinary persistence and profusion of an apparently fragile flower: the cornfield poppy, which splashed its blood-red blooms over the fields every summer. It blooms there to this day, on the fields now returned to the farming they were meant for, and from which the bones of the dead are still collected as the farmers’ ploughs uncover them.
The returning American ex-servicemen made the red poppy their emblem. It was particularly associated with a poem written by a Canadian doctor, John McCrae (he died of pneumonia in January 1918). His poem begins:
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….
So the Americans arranged for artificial poppies to be made by women in war-ravaged northern France. The funds raised from selling the poppies were for children who had suffered because of the war.
In Britain, the weary soldiers came back from the grimness of war to find that life was hard at home too, though in a different way. Many of the men were wounded or disabled or suffering the effects of gas and shell-shock. Many were physically or mentally unable to work; many others found that there were no jobs anyway. The provision made for them by the state was less than adequate. They certainly didn’t get the heroes’ homecoming that they had been led to expect. So ex-servicemen’s societies united in 1921 to form the British Legion. Its purpose was to provide support to ex-servicemen, especially the disabled, and their families, and it was to become one of the most successful British charities ever.
A Frenchwoman who was helping to organise the production of artificial poppies in France suggested that the British Legion might like to sell them to raise money. The British Legion approved of this idea, and ordered at least 1.5 million for November 11, 1921. They sold out almost at once. The first Poppy Appeal made £106,000, a huge sum in those days. The British Legion now decided to set up its own poppy factory, with disabled ex-servicemen making up the workforce. The Remembrance red poppy rapidly became an established part of British life. ‘Poppy Day’ said the Western Daily News in 1927, was ‘the one flag day when every man, woman and child with hardly an exception wears an emblem’.
By the end of the 20th century the British Legion were producing annually over 32 million ‘lapel’ poppies, 100,000 wreaths and 400,000 Remembrance crosses.