Soldier with red poppies

Tracing the poppies through history

During World War I, fields in Belgium and France burst into bloom with red poppies. When the soil was disturbed by fighting, and the ground was broken to dig trenches and graves, the previously dormant wind-blown seeds came to life. It was during the 1915 funeral of a fellow soldier that Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a surgeon, was inspired to write the poem “In Flanders Field,” named for the only American World War I cemetery in Belgium.

The opening lines read:

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.

After its anonymous publication in England’s Punch in December 1915, the poem quickly became the most popular poem of the era. Two women were moved by the verse and set out to make the red poppy the remembrance symbol of soldiers who died in World War I. In 1918, American teacher and humanitarian Moina Michael read the poem at a conference of YMCA leaders gathered at Columbia University. Though she’d often read the poem before, on this occasion the words touched her deeply. She vowed to honor the soldiers who served in the war by always wearing a red poppy. She bought all the poppies she could find and handed them out to colleagues and visitors. The idea quickly caught on, and selling poppies became a fundraiser for many veterans’ organizations.

Anna E. Guérin, a teacher from France, was in the United States when the National American Legion officially adopted the poppy as the United States’ emblem of remembrance. She brought the idea back to France, where women, children, and war veterans began making artificial flowers to raise money for war-torn areas. Anna and her delegates spread the idea to other countries, and soon, the Flanders Field red poppy became the Remembrance Day symbol across the world.

In Flanders Fields

Mickie Ross, Williamson Museum’s executive director, explains how the Papaver rhoeas, the same red poppies from Flanders Field in Belgium, made their way to Georgetown. “During World War I, Henry ‘Okra’ Compton served in northern France as an Army corporal. He gathered poppy seeds from the fields and brought them back to his mother in Georgetown. She planted them in her yard on 7th Street, and they spread through town.”

So when the poppies bloom this spring, take a moment to remember what they represent: the lives lost in defense of our country and our allies’ countries.


To learn more information about the history of poppies, visit the Williamson Museum on the Square, 716 S. Austin Ave., for their exhibit: Poppies & Progress: 1917-1923. For more information, go to their website at www.williamsonmuseum.org or call 512-943-1670.

Learn more about the poppies and how to sow and grow your own at www.texasgardener.com/pastissues/sepoct07/Poppies.

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