From Flanders to Georgia: How the red poppy flower became a Memorial Day symbol

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The symbolism behind the poppy flower started with a world war and prose.

British Lt. Col. John McCrae penned the famous poem "In Flanders Fields" in 1915 after his friend, a Canadian medic, died in the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium and was inspired by poppies growing in the area.

Three years after McCrae wrote the poem, he died of pneumonia in France. His writing lives on.

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According to the University of Georgia, that same year in 1918, Moina Michael was inspired by the poem and was the first to make the poppy a symbol of support for all military veterans.

"The red poppy came to symbolize the bloodshed during battle following the publication of the wartime poem 'In Flanders Fields,'" said Mary Anne Dull, of Unit 88 American Legion Auxiliary in Ashland County.

Over 100 years later, the small-town Georgia professor's impact is felt across the world as countless individuals wear the memorial poppy to honor service members.

Inspiration from Flanders

Dennis Amily and Jeff Sampsel, members of the Vietnam Veterans of America Barry Caruso Chapter in Wooster hand a poppy to Joyce Vura at Buehler's MIlltown.
Dennis Amily and Jeff Sampsel, members of the Vietnam Veterans of America Barry Caruso Chapter in Wooster hand a poppy to Joyce Vura at Buehler's MIlltown.

When the first guns of World War I blazed in 1914, Michael was in Germany on vacation.

She quickly traveled to neutral Italy, which would join the war in 1915, and booked a 16-day trans-Atlantic boat back to America, a University of Georgia story using Michael's autobiography states.

Once stateside and back in Georgia, Michael comforted soldiers preparing to go abroad and helped soldiers find lodgings with local families when the U.S. entered the conflict in 1917.

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She organized writing campaigns for families to send letters to their loved ones deployed in Europe, according to the university.

By 1918, Michael joined the YMCA Overseas War Workers in New York as a volunteer, according to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. There she first read McCrae's poem.

“The last verse transfixed me,” Michael wrote in her autobiography.

Two days before the armistice was signed ending the war in 1918, Michael penned a poem in response to McCrae's "In Flanders Fields."

Titled "We Shall Keep the Faith," her poem proposed the idea of wearing red poppy flowers in honor of those who died in the First World War.

Poppy pushing across the west

A mosaic of oil pastel drawings made by seventh and eighth graders in East Holmes schools is put together to create the final version of a Vincent Van Gogh piece called 'Poppies,' said Art teacher Kristine Flinner.
A mosaic of oil pastel drawings made by seventh and eighth graders in East Holmes schools is put together to create the final version of a Vincent Van Gogh piece called 'Poppies,' said Art teacher Kristine Flinner.

Following the war's end, Michael taught disabled servicemen at the University of Georgia and planted poppies on what became the university's Health Science Campus.

Michael then started a writing campaign in 1920 to popularize the flower and encourage organizations to adopt it, according to the University of Georgia.

Later that year, the American Legion adopted the red poppy as its official flower.

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The Shreve American Legion Post #67 recently announced Cianna Sinnett as the 2022 Miss Poppy. She poses with Shreve Mayor Yvonne Hendershot.
The Shreve American Legion Post #67 recently announced Cianna Sinnett as the 2022 Miss Poppy. She poses with Shreve Mayor Yvonne Hendershot.

Four years later,  American Legions across the country distributed poppies as part of a national program.

Across the pond in the United Kingdom, artificial poppies were first sold in 1921 to raise money for the Earl Haig Fund to support service members who died in World War I and their families, according to the Imperial War Museum located in the United Kingdom.

A French woman, Anna Guérin, manufactured the flowers in France to raise money for war orphans, the museum explains on its website.

Selling the flowers became so popular that the British Legion founded a factory staffed by disabled former servicemen in 1922.

Modern-day poppy tradition

Representing Harry Higgins Post 88 of the American Legion are Little Miss Poppy Abigail Valentine, 6, and Miss Poppy Rosemary Valentine, 9.
Representing Harry Higgins Post 88 of the American Legion are Little Miss Poppy Abigail Valentine, 6, and Miss Poppy Rosemary Valentine, 9.

Over a century after the Great War concluded and the poppy became the symbol of military service remembrance, the world has experienced a slew of wars and conflicts.

Nearly 665,494 U.S. service members died in the 1900s, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. This number includes battlefield deaths, non-combat-related deaths and deaths that occurred outside a theater of war.

This number does not include America's various other conflicts, including the wars in Central America, collectively called the Banana Wars, or the military occupations of Haiti, Cuba and other Caribbean nations.

Today, many areas around the country, including Wayne, Ashland and Holmes counties honor fallen servicemen with poppies.

2022 Little Miss Poppy, Blakey Call, presents Orrville Mayor Dave Handwerk with poppies for the month of May.
2022 Little Miss Poppy, Blakey Call, presents Orrville Mayor Dave Handwerk with poppies for the month of May.

Each year millions of these poppies are distributed, raising money for veterans, active-duty service members and their families, said Dull.

"Children are involved in spreading the poppy message, too," Dull said. "Poppy poster contests are held in local schools for students in grades two to 12."

Little Miss Poppy contest is for Junior Auxiliary members ages 6 to 12 at American Legion posts.

Each year, the chosen poppy girl distributes flowers, bouquets and poppies on Memorial Day.

"The Auxiliary promotes the poppy as a symbol of the sacrifices our military has made, a symbol to open people’s hearts and inspire them to donate," Dull said.

Reach Bryce by email at bbuyakie@gannett.com

On Twitter: @Bryce_Buyakie

This article originally appeared on The Daily Record: How red poppies became a Memorial Day symbol