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 Montreal.
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 contingent.
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 torn from his despatch book, the following verses:
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.
The verses were sent anonymously to "Punch" magazine and published under the title "In Flanders' Fields"
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 cemetery 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' fields,
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 red
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 need.
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 Appeal.
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 Warwickshire raised £670,000 a 10% increase on the previous year.