The first official Legion Poppy Day
was held in Britain on 11 November 1921, inspired by the poem In
Flanders' Fields written by John McCrae. Since then the Poppy
Appeal has been a key annual event in the nation's calendar.
How It All Began
The Flanders Poppy was first described as the "Flower of
Remembrance" by Colonel John McCrae who, before the First World
War, was a well known Professor of Medicine at McGill University in
He had previously served as a gunner in the South African War,
and at the outbreak of the First World War decided to join the
fighting ranks. However, the powers-that-be decided that his
abilities could be used to better advantage, and so he landed in
France as a Medical Officer with the first Canadian Army
At the second battle of Ypres in
1915, when in charge of a small first-aid post and during a lull in
the action, he wrote, in pencil, on a page torm from his despatch
book, the following verses:
In Flanders' fields the poppies
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
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.
The verses were sent anonymously to
"Punch" magazine and published under the title "In Flanders'
In May 1918 Colonel McCrae was
brought as a stretcher case to one of the big hospitals on the
channel coast of France. On the third evening he was wheeled
to the balcony of his room to look over the sea towards the cliffs
of Dover. The verses were obviously in his mind, for he told
the doctor who was in charge of his case:
"Tell them this,
If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep".
The same night Colonel McCrae
died. He was interred in a beautiful cemetry on rising ground
above Wimereux, from where the cliffs of Dover are easily visible
on sunny days.
The First World War finally came to
an end in November 1918, when an Armistice was declared, so that
peace terms could be arranged. At 11am on November 11th, the
last shot of the war was fired. For many years afterwards
Armistice Day was observed on the 11th November, but now it is
known as Remembrance Sunday, and is held always on the second
Sunday in November.
An American lady, Miss Moina
Michael, had read the poem and was greatly impressed, particularly
by the last verse. The wearing of a poppy appeared to her to
be the way to keep faith, and she wrote the reply:
"THE VICTORY EMBLEM"
Oh! You who sleep in Flanders'
Sleep sweet - to arise anew;
We caught the torch you threw,
And holding high we kept
The faith with those 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
Wear in honour of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught:
We've learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders' fields.
On November 9th 1918, only two days
before the Armistice was signed, Miss Michael was presented with a
small gift of money by some of the overseas War Secretaries of the
YMCA for whom she worked, and whose Conference was being held at
her house. She told them about the two poems, and announced
that she was going to buy 25 red poppies with the money. This
she did; she wore one herself, and each Secretary there bought
one from her. It is claimed, probably rightly, that this was
the first group selling of poppies.
The French Secretary, Madame
Guerin, had a practical and useful idea. She visited various
parts of the world to suggest that artificial poppies should be
made and sold to help ex-Servicemen and their dependants in
As a result the first ever Poppy
Day was held in Britain on November 11th 1921. The poppies
were obtained from a French organisation, which used it profits to
help children in the War devastated areas.
At that time, Field Marshal Earl
Haig (who had been Commander-in-Chief in France) had become the
Founder-President of the newly formed British Legion ("The Royal"
prefix was not conferred until 1971). The Legion's purpose
was then - as it remains today - in time of need to give practical
help to all men and women who have served in the Forces, and to
their widows and dependants.
Earl Haig used to say that the
privision of work for disabled ex-Servicemen was as important as
raising money. He always took the greatest personal interest
in the Legion's Poppy Factory. This Factory started its
activities in 1922 with five disabled ex-Servicemen working in a
room over a shop in Bermondsey in South London.
Today, The Royal British Legion
Poppy Factory Ltd carries on the same work in modern premises in
Richmond, Surrey, where 50 disabled ex-Servicemen are employed all
year round in the manufacture of the 27 million Poppies, 113,000
Wreaths and 800,000 Remembrance Crosses for the 2010
The first Poppy Appeal in 1921
raided £106,000. By 1978 the Appeal had reached over £3.5
million annually. In 2009 the Appeal in Warwicksire raised £670,000
a 10% increase on the previous year.