Skip to main content
Plan your visit
Stories

The poppy appeal

The poppy is widely recognised in Britain and the Commonwealth today as the symbol of remembrance. It was a Canadian officer, John McCrae, who first noticed these small red flowers growing around the graves of fallen soldiers in 1915, and was moved to write his famous poem:

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.

"Will you help?" A British soldier head emerges from a field of poppies, representing his fallen comrades: "sellers needed for poppy day"

Designed by a Captain E.H. Spencer of Leeds and adopted by the British Legion for the 1955 Poppy Drive. It shows the face of a Tommy surrounded by a blood red background of poppies, and represents the sacrifice of the men who lost their lives.

Inspired by the poem, American teacher Moina Michael bought paper poppies from a local department store and handed them out, in memory of the fallen, to delegates of a YMCA conference in New York that was taking place the day the Armistice was signed. She then campaigned for it to be adopted as the official symbol of sacrifice in America, and in 1920 the American Legion National Convention gave its approval.

It was Madame Anna Guerin while working for the ‘American and French Children’s League’, which used the poppy as its emblem and had been supplying America with artificial poppies, who first thought of selling the artificial poppies to raise money for veterans. She encouraged the adoption of the poppy by other Allied nations as a symbol for their losses, and met with Field Marshall Earl Douglas Haig, the Founder and President of the British Legion, and persuaded him to adopt the poppy as their emblem in late 1921. The first Poppy Appeal was launched later that year in the run up to the third anniversary of the November Armistice, with the proceeds being given to veterans in need of financial and medical support.

"1914-1918 - Remember - 1939-1945" Two British soldiers from both world wars stand side by side. "sellers needed for poppy day"

Designed by Captain E.H. Spencer of Leeds, showing a Great War soldier standing next to a comrade from the Second World War. Although not adopted by the British Legion, the poster’s message is a reminder of the continued importance of the role of volunteers in the sale of poppies today.

The original poppies were manufactured in France, but a Poppy Factory was established in London in 1922 by Major George Howden MC of The Disabled Society for ex-servicemen and women, which employed up to five veterans to manufacture them. A second factory was established in Edinburgh in 1926 by Countess Dorothy Haig for the sister charity, the Earl Haig Fund Scotland, which was founded in 1921 for the same purpose. Year by year the demand for poppies grew, and in 1933 the London factory was moved to larger premises in Surrey.

Today in the lead up to the anniversary of the Armistice millions of poppies are manufactured, and sold by volunteers in shops and supermarkets across Britain. These unpaid helpers are the backbone of poppy sales, and without them the vast amounts of money raised for veterans would not be possible. Anyone can become a member, regardless of whether they are an ex-member of the armed forces or not, as long as they help to continue the tradition of poppy selling.

Many variations of poppies are now produced for a variety of messages, including a white poppy available from the Peace Pledge Union, which honours the civilian loss felt in war.

Written by Aaron Clayton, Hull University

Related stories

Popular Culture Bonfire night stories Read time: 7 minutes Find out more

Popular Culture Does James Bond’s PPK still make sense? Read time: 6 minutes Find out more

Object of the Month A redundant armour? Read time: 8 minutes Find out more