The Poppy is the symbol of the Royal British Legion. When you buy a poppy from the RBL you are helping to raise money for veterans and their families who find themselves in need. But what does the poppy represent?
World War I, ‘The Great War’ as it was known by those who lived through it was fought in many countries on different continents by combatants from across the globe. It was fought on many different ‘fronts’ from Gallipoli in the Dardanelles to Arabia and Belgium, from Egypt and China to Flanders and, of course to the Poppy fields of Flanders.
The Western front followed the line of the Somme where, in the lazy heat of summers before the war, the landscape had burned red, not with fire or with blood but with the vivid red of thousands upon thousands of wild poppies. As four years of trench warfare dragged on the poppies mingled with the blood and the bones of the fallen from both sides until the poppy itself became associated with the wounded and the dead. Eventually even they disappeared under the morass of mud and decaying flesh but not before they found a symbolic place in the hearts and minds of a generation.
In May 1915, apparently shortly after officiating at the funeral of his fallen friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, Canadian artillery officer, Lt. Colonel John McCrea put pen to paper in remembrance of his fallen comrade. In doing so he forever associated fallen soldiers with the poppy that surrounded the battlefield of Ypres, In Flanders fields…
In Flanders Fields by Lt. Colonel John McCrae
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.
Wave upon wave of reinforcements did indeed ‘take up the quarrel with the foe’ and wave upon wave met their end, not only in the long lines of trenches that scarred the landscape of the Western front but across the globe. 51 long months of war resulted in the deaths of 11 million combatants and 7 million civilian men, women and children. An additional 20 million were injured as a direct result of the war. This makes the period from August 1914 to November 11th 1918 one of the bloodiest episodes in all of human history. The localised conflict between Austria and Serbia that began on July 28th 1914 quickly escalated to encompass the globe with Germany declaring war on Russia on August 1st and on France two days later. Great Britain joined the war on August 4th 1914.
Four years of stalemate in France and unimaginable slaughter in other theatres of conflict created a protracted war of attrition with each side ‘throwing men to their deaths’ in the hope that the enemy’s losses would be greater and more damaging than their own. It was a brutal, cynical time as commanders on both sides ordered sacrifice upon sacrifice, the British at sites like Ypres or Amiens, the French and Germans at the ancient fortress of Verdun.
In the end, Germany blinked first. Kaiser Wilhelm surrendered, his exhausted and greatly depleted forces were no match for the renewed vigour of his enemies following America’s entry into the war. Hostilities ceased at 11am on the 11th November, 1918… the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, as it will forever be known.
The war was over.
On June 28th 1919, exactly 5 years after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (the event that triggered The Great War) the victorious allies had the Germans sign the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty came complete with a commitment to crippling reparations in compensation for the losses and costs of the war. The payments would cripple the German economy and ultimately lead to World War 2 after what one French soldier, Marshall Ferdinand Foch described not as a ‘peace’ but as a ‘20 year armistice’. He was correct, almost to the day.
When we combine the armistice of November 11th with the image of the poppy we have a powerful symbol of remembrance, of gratitude and of peace. The poppy represents both the tragedy and the heroism of war. Here in UK it also symbolizes the work of the Royal British Legion, its fundraising and the charitable assistance it provides to the families of the fallen and to surviving servicemen and women in need.
That’s why we urge you to buy your poppy from the Royal British Legion and in some small way give something back to those who bought and continue to pay for our freedoms.
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