Ever since I bought the red artificial poppy in Colombo in the nineteen eighties, I have been fascinated by the symbolism behind the artificial flower. Red poppies are sold in memory of the fallen soldiers of the World Wars I & II.
Silk Poppy – Australia-Pic: Alfiet
Generally the day is referred to as the Remembrance Day, and a minute of silence is observed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of each year.
The symbolism originated with the British Empire and became a practice with other countries in later years. The proceeds from the sale of poppies go towards the war widows and their dependents. This Friday, across the globe, millions of people will pause for a minute of silence at the 11th hour to reflect on those who made the supreme sacrifice.
The World War I guns were silenced at 11 am on the eleventh day of November 1918 signalling the end of the war. The opposing countries called a truce and the fighting stopped after 4 years of continuous battle. Originally this day was referred as Armistice Day. The word armistice is taken from the Latin word armistitium where arma means arms and stititum refers stoppage.
A year later the then king of Britannia King George V, declared the Armistice Day to honour the members of the armed forces who lost their lives for the British Empire. After the World War II the day was re-named as Remembrance Day. Since then the soldiers who perished in the Korean, Vietnam and other wars are also remembered in the other countries. Poppy wreaths are laid on the graves of the soldiers and individual poppies are also sold to mark the day. It is no doubt the current war soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq and other battlefields will be also remembered on this day in the years to come.
The Red Poppy
The Remembrance Day is also referred to as Poppy Day. The red Poppy (Papaver Rhoeas) belongs to the family of Paperveraceae, also known as the corn poppy, is a native to Europe and it is normally considered a weed in the agricultural fields of Europe. During the World War I, the Flanders plain, now located in parts of Netherlands, Belgium and France was a major battle field. Wild poppies sprang up in the Flanders region when the soil was churned and muddied. The arrays of poppies were also seen in the graveyards among the crosses of the fallen soldiers.
A different species of poppy (Papaver Somniferum), a native to the south-east of Europe and west Asia are also popular for different reasons. It is an annual herb known as opium poppy, contains opium and quinine alkaloids and has the sedative properties. It is not to be mistaken for the red poppy.
John McCrae, a Canadian soldier, physician and a poet had to bury his mate in 1915 in the absence of a chaplain. His young friend and fellow Canadian was buried next to his dressing station in the plain of Flanders. The loss of his friend had a major impact on McCrae. The Doctor-poet penned a poem titled “In the Flanders field” referring to the wild poppies in the ditches of the graveyards of the soldiers. In 1918 the doctor was wounded and few days later he lost his life aged 46. He was buried in France.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow (grow)
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.
John McCrae MD (1872 – 1918)
John McCrae’s poem when published inspired an American YWCA worker, Miss Moira Michael. Ms Michael campaigned to have the poppy as the symbol of the Remembrance Day for the fallen soldiers. The poppy was eventually adopted by the American legion as the symbol of the sacrifice. Since then the artificial poppy has been widely used to raise funds.
Canadian ten dollar bill-photo-Balini S
As a tribute to Dr. John McCrae, the Royal Canadian mint has printed the first five lines of his poem in English & French, (see the circled area in the photo) on the back of the Canadian ten Dollar bill and has also circulated a special quarter (twenty five cents) featuring the red Poppy. The British legion lays a wreath on his grave every remembrance day.
Most of the British colonies adopted the Remembrance Day and the red poppy as the symbol of the sacrifice of the armed forces. Men from the subcontinent were also recruited by the Royal British Army who fought side by side. In the nineteen thirties, a Marxist group in Ceylon instigated “sooriyakaanthi malar” (suriyamal -Sun Flower) in place of the poppy to counter-act the imperialists since the proceeds of the sale of poppies were channelled to the Australian, British and Canadian soldiers overseas. Sun Flower fervour was gaining momentum until the eruption of Second World War in the late nineteen thirties. It is also notable that many sub continent soldiers were recruited to serve in the British army for the Second World War.
Although the red poppy of John McCrae’s is the symbol of the sacrifice of modern times legend has it that in the 12th century the mogul emperor Genghis Khan associated the poppy with human sacrifice.
Generally the victors write the history of the events and the losers are conveniently forgotten or painted viciously. If the battles were judged upon in the absence of malice, the losing army would have obeyed the command of their vitriolic dictators and paid with heavy causalities in the name of their tribes, troops and their own land.
This Friday on the eleventh hour show your gratitude for all those who made the supreme sacrifice in the name of war. Let us not forget the philosophy of the Englishman, John Donne (see below) who has written well before the First World War!
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne (1572 -1631 -England)