Famous WW1 poem that inspired the Remembrance Poppy penned this week in 1915

  Posted: 07.05.21 at 12:23 by David Beaumont

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On the anniversary of the week one of WWI’s most famous poems was written, David Beaumont reflects on the poem’s story and its link to the poppy-wearing tradition that has now been going for a century.

On May 2nd 1915, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer was blown up by a German shell. He was buried the same day. Nothing unusual there. Except that as a result of his demise, a significant part of the worlds’ population wear poppies in remembrance and have done for a century. It’s an institution. Why?

The following day, his best friend, a medic and part-time poet called John McCrae, visited Helmer’s grave.

Digging graves meant soil was turned over which in turn brought poppy seeds to the surface. A little rain and sun and the poppy seeds germinate rapidly. Their paper-thin petals drifted in the breeze which circulated gently in the cemetery.

McCrae was stirred by the poignancy of the blood red flowers decorating his friend’s cemetery.

He returned to his dressing station, perched on the back of an ambulance and in just 20 minutes wrote “In Flanders Fields”. A poetic poppy-laden tribute to his friend.

George Howson (bottom centre) with his employees at the first Poppy Factory opened in an old collar factory in Bermondsey

In Flanders Fields

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 Poppy Factory in Richmond

His fellow medics were so impressed with the piece that they suggested that he should try and get his work published.

In December 1915, it appeared in Punch magazine. The British public fell in love with his work. It went viral. The armed forces even used it to recruit more soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Move the clock forward some three years to the 8th November 1918, just 72 hours before the end of the war.

An American teacher called Moina Belle Michael was attending a conference in New York. While waiting for her colleagues, she picked up a magazine.

Next to a cartoon of soldiers’ souls drifting to the heavens from a battlefield was a poem. It was called ‘They shall not sleep.’

The old factory just before it moved to Richmond

The Americans had renamed McCrae’s work. She was moved and showed it to her fellow delegates who were equally touched.

Moina had an idea. She went to the nearest millinery store and bought a couple of dozen silk poppies which they were to wear to remember their fallen family and friends. She gave one to each of the delegates in return for a donation. This was the first time that an imitation poppy was exchanged for charity. Moina made it her life’s work to promote this cause within the USA.

One year on, in 1919, a French socialite by the name of Anna Guérin attended a conference where Michael was due to speak about her cause. Anna was troubled about the bleak future of the orphans and widows of the war. She was travelling to get ideas for their employment.

Anna was impressed with Moina’s poppy undertaking and took the idea back with her to the Western Front.

Her post-war sufferers filled the now defunct army installations with desks and poppy components. They were making millions of poppies for several countries. Anna had been to them all to promote her idea at her own expense. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Nepal and India all bought her idea to remember their dead by. The orphans and widows of the war were very busy.

Deirdre Mills, Chief Executive of the Poppy Factory

In September 1921, Anna came to England. She had an appointment with General Haig who had been in charge of our forces from 1915 to 1919. Haig was a champion of disabled ex-servicemen having initiated several plans to help them get back to work. The first Armistice day had been planned for the 11th November 1921.

Haig was easily persuaded to order poppies from Anna but there was a snag. He had no money to pay for them. He wanted to order 6 million poppies and Anna would have only six weeks to fulfil his requirements.

She agreed to provide them and suggested that the General paid for them after raising the charitable contributions. Anna was that confident that all 6 million would be sold.

She was right. Both sides fulfilled their promises.

Now Haig was eager for more imitation poppies for 1922. Preferably British-made poppies.

He was introduced to Major George Howson who had been badly injured at the battle of Passchendaele. He was keen to start a business to employ disabled ex-servicemen. Howson believed they were owed a chance in life and Haig shared that belief with great passion.

The General gave Howson a cheque for £2000 with which he founded the first Poppy Factory in South East London. Howson had just 2 criteria to be an employee. You had to be the breadwinner and you had to be 80% disabled. He employed 6 disabled ex-servicemen in 1921. Within 2 years he had 150 employees and had to move to a larger factory in Richmond in West London. It’s still there today.

Nearly one hundred years later, The Poppy Factory still employs veterans with health conditions to make wreaths and other Remembrance items for the Royal British Legion and the Royal Family. And the charity now reaches far beyond Richmond, with employment consultants based around the UK to help wounded, injured and sick veterans on their journey back to work.

Deirdre Mills (pictured above), Chief Executive of the Poppy Factory said: “The specialist support that our charity established in Richmond nearly 100 years ago has now been extended across England and Wales, with one-to-one support offered to veterans in their communities.

"Each year we help hundreds of wounded, injured and sick veterans find a new sense of purpose through all kinds of employment, and we look forward to helping many others meet the challenges of the future.”

Sean Fraser, Director of the Ontario Heritage Trust talks about the importance of the poem: “The honour to serve, the loss of those who serve on our behalf and our part of the bargain to remember them and to remember that sacrifice — I think this really encapsulates that, probably better than any other poem that I’m aware of,” he said.

So, one death in 1915 and the coincidental meeting of our characters in this story have instigated and sustained a remarkable institution. Helmer, McCrae, Michael, Guérin, Haig and Howson may all be long gone but their legacy lives on.

Long may it endure.

You can find out more about The Poppy Factory and its work on the website here.

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