On Memorial Day, many Americans choose to wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance, and a way of honoring the sacrifice of the men and women who have been killed fighting for their country. In a similar spirit of remembrance, people in other countries--including the United Kingdom, Canada, France and Belgium--don red poppies every November 11, to commemorate the anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. But how did this bright red flower (well, it’s technically a weed, but we’ll get to that) become such a potent and universal symbol of wartime sacrifice? The story goes back to a Canadian military surgeon who wrote one of the war’s most famous poems, and the American university professor inspired by his words.

From 1914 to 1918, World War I took a greater human toll than any previous conflict, with some 8.5 million soldiers dead of battlefield injuries or disease. The Great War, as it was then known, also ravaged the landscape of Western Europe, where most of the fiercest fighting took place, leaving devastation in its wake.

Across northern France and Flanders (northern Belgium), the brutal clashes between Allied and Axis soldiers tore up fields and forests, tearing up trees and plants and wreaking havoc on the soil beneath. But in the warm early spring of 1915, bright red flowers began peeking through the battle-scarred land: Papaver rhoeas, known variously as the Flanders poppy, corn poppy, red poppy and corn rose. As Chris McNab, author of “The Book of the Poppy,” wrote in an excerpt published in the Independent, the brilliantly colored flower is actually classified as a weed, which makes sense given its tenacious nature.

John McCrae in uniform. (Credit: Public Domain)
John McCrae in uniform. (Credit: Public Domain)

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who served as a brigade surgeon for an Allied artillery unit, spotted a cluster of poppies that spring, shortly after the Second Battle of Ypres. McCrae tended to the wounded and got a firsthand look at the carnage of that clash, in which the Germans unleashed lethal chlorine gas for the first time in the war. Some 87,000 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing in the battle (as well as 37,000 on the German side); a friend of McCrae’s, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was among the dead.

Struck by the sight of bright red blooms on broken ground, McCrae wrote a poem, “In Flanders Field,” in which he channeled the voice of the fallen soldiers buried under those hardy poppies. Published in Punch magazine in late 1915, the poem would be used at countless memorial ceremonies, and became one of the most famous works of art to emerge from the Great War. Its fame had spread far and wide by the time McCrae himself died, from pneumonia and meningitis, in January 1918.

Across the Atlantic, a woman named Moina Michael read “In Flanders Field” in the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal that November, just two days before the armistice. A professor at the University of Georgia at the time the war broke out, Michael had taken a leave of absence to volunteer at the New York headquarters of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), which trained and sponsored workers overseas. Inspired by McCrae’s verses, Michael wrote her own poem in response, which she called “We Shall Keep Faith.”

As a sign of this faith, and a remembrance of the sacrifices of Flanders Field, Michael vowed to always wear a red poppy; she found an initial batch of fabric blooms for herself and her colleagues at a department store. After the war ended, she returned to the university town of Athens, and came up with the idea of making and selling red silk poppies to raise money to support returning veterans.

Michael’s campaign to make the poppy the national symbol for remembrance and veterans’ welfare earned her moniker “the Poppy Lady.” Largely thanks to her efforts, the newly founded National American Legion voted to use the poppy as the official U.S. national emblem of remembrance in September 1920, when its members convened in Cleveland.

Anna Guérin, who attended the American Legion meeting in Cleveland as a representative of France’s YMCA organization, also appreciated the poppy’s symbolic power—and its potential. Upon her return to France, she organized French women, children and veterans to make and sell artificial poppies as a way to fund the restoration of war-torn France. As Heather Johnson argues on her website devoted to Madame Guérin’s work, the Frenchwoman may have been the single most significant figure in spreading the symbol of the Remembrance poppy through the British Commonwealth countries and other Allied nations.

Wooden crosses bearing pictures of fallen servicemen and women and poppy flowers are planted in a memorial field at Saltwell Park in Gateshead, north-east England, on October 29, 2012 ahead of Remembrance Day (Armistice Day) on November 11. AFP PHOTO/PAUL ELLIS
Credit: PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Within a year, Guérin brought her campaign for an “Inter-Allied Poppy Day” to England. In November 1921, the newly founded (Royal) British Legion held its first-ever “Poppy Appeal,” which sold millions of the silk flowers and raised over £106,000 (a hefty sum at the time) to go towards finding employment and housing for Great War veterans. The following year, Major George Howson set up the Poppy Factory in Richmond, England, in which disabled servicemen were employed to make the fabric and paper blooms.

Other nations soon followed suit in adopting the poppy as their official symbol of remembrance. Today, nearly a century after World War I ended, millions of people in the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand don the red flowers every November 11 (known as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day) to commemorate the anniversary of the 1918 armistice. According to McNab, the Poppy Factory (now located in Richmond, England and Edinburgh, Scotland) is still the center of poppy production, churching out as many as 45 million poppies made of various materials each year.

In the United States, the tradition has developed a little differently. Americans don’t typically wear poppies on November 11 (Veterans Day), which honors all living veterans. Instead, they wear the symbolic red flower on Memorial Day—the last Monday in May—to commemorate the sacrifice of so many men and women who have given their lives fighting for their country.

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae

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 our 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.