Veterans Day, Flowers, and Inspiration


By Laurie Sheldon

Woodrow Wilson on Armistice Day
The Eleventh Hour
A popular expression to indicate something done at the last minute (like when I wrote this blog), the root of this phrase dates back to November 11, 1918, when an armistice (an agreement to cease hostilities) between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, signifying the end of "the war to end all wars" - World War I. One year later, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the date as "Armistice Day", a day of parades, pride in our country's heroic servicemen, gratitude for its victory, and silent reflection at 11am. In 1938 it became a legal holiday, and in 1954 it was re-named "Veterans Day" to extend the holiday's respect to those who served in World War 2. Members of the British Commonwealth of Nations  now refer to the date as "Rememberance Day," and both France and Serbia continue to observe the date as it was originally named.

John McCrae, circa 1914
A specific flower or plant is often associated with many national holidays - clover for St. Patrick's Day, holly or poinsettia for Christmas, resurrection lilies for Easter, etc. Since its earliest inception, Armistice or Veterans day has been associated with poppies. Those who wonder why must only envision the numerous ground battles in Belgian Flanders and the soil disturbance they caused, along with the burial of soldiers in the field. Encouraged slightly warmer weather, dormant poppy seeds on the broken ground began to germinate and grow.

John McCrae
On May 2nd, 1915, a young Canadian Lieutenant was killed by an exploding German artillery shell at that site. John McCrae, the brigade's military doctor and a friend of the fallen officer, was asked to conduct the burial service. When drafting his eulogy, he  noticed the unusual juxtaposition of the bright red flowers and the graves of the fallen, and composed the following poem:
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.

Moina Michael
More than three years later, on November 9th, 1918, the 25th Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries was in progress at their New York  headquarters. A woman named Moina Michael was working in the headquarters' reading room that day when she came across the poem in the November issue of the "Ladies Home Journal." She was so deeply moved by its last verse that she vowed to always wear a red poppy as a sign of rememberance, and wrote the following poem, entitled "We Shall Keep the Faith," in response to McCrae's piece:
Moina Michael
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
She then rushed out to purchase red poppies to bring back to headquarters, put one in her own lapel, and disbursed two dozen more to the Conference delegates. After almost two years of campaigning to have the poppy become a national symbol of remembrance, the National American Legion Conference adopted it at a convention in Cleveland.

Buddy Poppies are all made by disabled veterans
The French Poppy Lady
Anna Guérin, a representative of the French YMCA Secretariat, attended the Cleveland conference and was inspired by Michael's efforts. She decided to expand on the significance of the memorial poppy by making cloth poppies to sell, the proceeds of which would go toward restoring her war-torn country and helping children who were orphaned because of the war. After returning to France, she founded the "American and French Children's League," and sent representatives of the organization to France's World War I allies. The organization fell apart just a year later, but Guérin was determined to further its mission. She enlisted the aid of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the United States to distribute the cloth poppies in America. Millions were sold. The VFW started making them stateside, and patented the name "Buddy Poppy" for the silk flowers, which reminded the veterans of their buddies who never returned from the war.  Other countries, including England, Scotland, and Australia followed suit shortly thereafter by adopting similar poppy-centric fundraising campaigns.

Fast Forward
The seeds of Papaver rhoeas, called Flanders or
corn poppies can remain dormant in the soil for
eighty years or longer. They plants are considered
agricultural weeds in many parts of Europe.
Today, almost a century later, Veterans Day in the United States honors our servicemen and women from World Wars I & II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Persian Gulf War, and the Invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. If there's one thing all Americans would agree on, it's probably that this is the greatest country on earth and it's worth fighting for.

The red poppies of McCrae's poem are Papaver rhoeas, natives of Europe. If we are to honor the poppy as a symbol of Memorial Day, shouldn't we select distinctly American poppies? It is the message carried with the flower, not the color of its petals, that shows our solidarity and support for our military and our country. Those who live on the Pacific coast will have no problem finding native poppies; golden  poppies, Eschscholzia californica, are prolific in California (and are its state flower!) In Florida, however, there are only 3 native genera in the Papaveraceae (poppy family): Argemone, Corydalis, and Sanguinaria. Of these, only one species, Argemone mexicana, has the cup-shaped flower typically associated with poppies, but, because of its prickly leaves, it would make an uncomfortable choice for wearing. Perhaps that's what makes it so appropriate for Veteran's Day, though, as it reminds us of both the pain and loss of wartime, and the clear, bright, forward face of peace.

Argemone mexicana, Mexican pricklypoppy, is a Florida native and member of the Papaveraceae.
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Image Sources

Woodrow Wilson on Armistice Day
John McCrae, circa 1914
Poem illustration
Moina Michael
Buddy Poppy advertisement
Papaver rhoeas
Argemone mexicana

Comments

Anonymous said…
Thanks for writing this piece, I wasn't aware of the history of the poppies.
I wasn't aware of their history until a few days ago when I received an email about wearing poppies for Veterans Day and felt compelled to do some research. I hope you enjoyed reading it - I think the stories behind the symbol are as interesting as the symbol itself.

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