Armistice Day and The Forgotten Symbolism of the Poppy

On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918, the guns of Europe fell silent. We in the US know of November 11th as Veterans’ Day, a holiday to honor those who have served in our military forces.

Sadly, the day isn’t thought of much outside the military. The President lays a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. As it is not usually a day off of work, most department stores don’t even bother with announcing a sale. A news story about Obama’s plans for Veterans’ Day 2011 sums up the lack of gravitas our culture gives to the day. After quoting the news release that Obama would attend the ceremonies at Arlington and then fly to San Diego to watch a football game with the crew of the USS Carl Vinson, the report concluded:

Will you be tuning in to watch the historic event? If nothing else it will be cool to watch a game on a war machine that can literally wipe out an entire city.

I didn’t know much about Veterans’ Day until we moved to London. From the beginning of November to the 11th or the second Sunday, Remberance Sunday, people wear commemorative poppies on their lapels. The British Legion sells the pins as a fund raiser for wounded veterans. (The American Legion does as well, but on a small scale.) On both days, people observe a moment of silence at 11 am. Why two days? During WWII, the moment of silence was moved to the closest Sunday so as not to interfere with wartime production. After WWII ended, the double observance remained, perhaps as a reminder as to why the ceremony had to move.

The lapel poppies create awareness making the country’s mood more respectful, benefiting the sacrifices that veterans have made for us. Poppies became the symbol of the fallen due to the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae. Belgium saw heavy casualties in WWI and blood red poppies eventually grew over the fields of the fallen. To commemorate a friend, McCrae wrote:

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.

Professor Moina Michael

The poem is a primary school staple in the UK and Commonwealth the way the Gettysburg Address is in the US. A professor at the University of Georgia, Moina Michael, wrote a reply to “In Flanders Fields” and made silk poppies to sell and raise funds for the wounded. The practice spread to Europe where it still thrives. In “In Flanders Fields” the fallen call to us, in “We Shall Keep the Faith” we reply:

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.

In Flanders Fields we fought.

I used my 9 year old's artwork for the first and last images in this post. The pastel at the top is from his Year 1 in London. Children in the UK learn about the poppies. They know the poem. They know the significance of the red. At our school here in Houston, the 3rd and 4th graders did a choral concert of patriotic songs. But while they memorized the words, they were only told that November the 11th was the end of WWII with no other context that I can discern. What good does it do to teach children the words to “My Country Tis of Thee” (minus the final verse, "Our fathers' God, to thee," incidentally) if they have no idea what it means?