The story of the poppy

In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row … The association of the red poppy with battlefield deaths as a symbol of remembrance stems from the fact that poppies were the first plant to grow in the churned up soil of soldiers graves on the Western Front during the First World War, most famously recalled in John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.

It was Moina Michael in America who promoted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance and French woman Madame E. Guerin who conceived the idea of the widows manufacturing artificial poppies in the devastated areas of northern France that could then be sold by veterans’ organisations worldwide to assist their own veterans as well as destitute French children. It was a result of the efforts of Michael and Guerin — both of whom became known endearingly as the ‘Poppy Lady’ that the poppy became an international symbol of remembrance.

Poppy Day in New Zealand One of Madame Guerin’s representatives visited the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association in 1921 and an order for some 350,000 small and 16,000 large silk poppies was duly placed with Madame Guerin’s French Children’s League. 

Unlike in United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, the RSA did not hold its inaugural Poppy Appeal in association with Armistice Day 1921 (11 November). The reason for this is one of those quirks of history: the ship carrying the poppies from France arrived too late for the scheme to be properly publicised, forcing the RSA to postpone the campaign until the day before ANZAC Day 1922. However, this decision established a historic precedent whereby the poppy became forever associated with ANZAC Day, thereby setting New Zealand apart from the rest of the world where the poppy is associated with Remembrance Day.

Today after 95 years, the now New Zealand-made RSA Poppy is a national icon. It is a fitting symbol of the RSA’s promotion of the welfare and remembrance of those who have served their country. Information provided by RNZRSA Historian Dr Stephen Clarke 


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