signs of remembrance
Moina Michael, secretary to the YMCA in New York, started the wearing of the poppy in remembrance of Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. Through the American and the French YMCA, poppies were sold to raise money for war widows and their families. She started by buying silk poppies at a trimmings store: the poppies actually looked like poppies. Today, the poppy-wearing nations, generally the Commonwealth, have distinctive poppy shapes, abstracted from the original.
In Grade 2 in the annex to Craigflower School that we had, and in love with things miniature, I remember inspecting my poppy: it had the red bit, and in the centre a black piece of felt with a serrated edge and in the centre of that a tiny bright green felt dot that the pin went through. The petals were flocked cardboard, on the back it said the poppy had been made by veterans of Canada. The Canadian poppy was first worn in 1922, made by disabled vets in workshops in Toronto and Montreal, sponsored by the Department of Soldiers Civil Re-establishment (later Veterans Affairs). It provided them a small income.
The Legion eventually took over production, and poppy production is now outsourced to a private company. Today our poppies are stamped out of flocked plastic, so light and slippery that it is impossible to keep them on your coat unless you bend the straight pin with pliers into a sharp hook. However, ours look good on TV as they are so graphic: circular, black centre.
The British poppy has only two petals, a plastic stem and a leaf. It is made by the British Legion in their factory in London. As late as 2008 their poppy appeared to have four petals, circular, with leaf, but somehow two petals have been lost, or there are alternative poppy producers in Britain.
The ANZAC poppy in New Zealand is similar, but without the leaf, felt not paper, and has a flag attached for the Returned Servicemen League. ANZAC Day is April 25th; Remembrance Day is a more minor memorial event. ANZAC poppies were made in New Zealand from 1931 until 2010 when the contract was moved to Australia where poppies are now assembled using parts made in China.
The Australian poppy (seemingly different from the ANZAC poppy, it is a bit confusing here) is a lovely thing, it actually looks like a poppy. First sold in 1921, the poppies were imported from France where they had been made in orphanages. The proceeds went to the RSL for its veterans' welfare work and to the orphanages. It seems still to be made by the Returned Services League but can't find details.
In Scotland, poppies have been made in Lady Haig's Poppy Factory in Edinburgh since 1926. It still employs 40 disabled ex-servicemen who hand-make 5 million poppies, crosses and wreaths a year. They make a range of poppies, including these long stemmed silk poppies out of silk.
The poppy has never become a general symbol that slips between war and peace, battle and non-violence. It is absolutely lodged in that one event, the Armistice at the end of The Great War, the war to end all wars, but the terms of which led to the Second World War and on to the Cold War. It is, in McCrae's poem whence it all springs, a reminder of what are now called 'boots on the ground' – the actual people who fight our wars.