Flanders Fields

The Poppies of Flanders Fields

Why were the poppies of Flanders Fields so numerous? And how did they become the symbol of remembrance?

Were the fields of Flanders always covered in poppies?

Not to such an extent as during the First World War. Actually, and quite surprisingly, in the early years of the 20th century there were hardly any poppies in the fields of Flanders, Belgium. At least nothing like there were by the end of the First World War.

The reason for their comparative absence is that the soils of Flanders and the north-west of France were fairly poor. The corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) thrives on richly manured, ploughed land. One British soldier remarked in 1914 that the fields in the area of the Somme (in northern France) were far poorer for poppies than his native Norfolk in England.

When did the poppies of Flanders Fields first appear in huge numbers?

It was in the second year of the war – in 1915 – that the first records appeared in letters sent home of no-man’s land being “ablaze” with scarlet poppies. From this time onwards, letters written by soldiers constantly referred to the fields of poppies, and featured heavily in soldier’s poems. Such as this one by Lieutenant-Colonel W. Campbell Galbraith.

RED POPPIES IN THE CORN

I’ve seen them in the morning light,
When white mists drifted by.
I’ve seen them in the dusk o’ night
Glow ‘gainst the starry sky.
The slender waving blossoms red,
Mid yellow fields forlorn.
A glory on the scene they shed,
Red Poppies in the Corn.

I’ve seen them, too, those blossoms red,
Show ‘gainst the Trench lines’ screen.
A crimson stream that waved and spread
Thro’ all the brown and green.
I’ve seen them dyed a deeper hue
Than ever nature gave,
Shell-torn from slopes on which they grew
To cover many a grave.

Bright blossoms fair by nature set
Along the dusty ways,
You cheered us, in the battle’s fret,
Thro’ long and weary days.
You gave us hope: if fate be kind,
We’ll see that longed-for morn,
When home again we march and find
Red Poppies in the Corn.

Lieutenant-Colonel W. Campbell Galbraith (1917)

the Poppies of Flanders Fields

Did poppies appear on other battlefields?

Yes, particularly on the Gallipoli peninsula in Ottoman Turkey. Allied troops landed here on 25th April 1915. The objective was to capture the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and knock Ottoman Turkey out of the war.

Trench warfare quickly took hold at Gallipoli, mirroring the fighting taking place on the Western Front. After eight months of heavy fighting, the Allies withdrew, in January 1916. It was a major Allied failure and a defining moment for the nation of Turkey.

Anyway, by the time the Allies left, whole swathes of the area were covered in poppies. A valley south of Anzac beach was named Poppy Valley.

Why did so many poppies appear during the First World War?

This is the key question, isn’t it? The war created prime conditions for poppies to flourish in Flanders and north-west France (and Gallipoli). Continual bombardment disturbed the soil and brought the seeds to the surface. They were fertilized by nitrogen in the explosives and lime from the shattered rubble of the buildings.

Most poignantly, the blood and the bones of the millions of men, horses, donkeys, dogs and other animals richly fertilized the soil.

The longer the war continued, the more men and animals died. The more men and animals died, the more the poppies thrived.

The Poppies of Flanders Fields

When did the poppy become the flower of remembrance?

It all started with Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian medical doctor. In May 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres he was working in a dressing station alongside the Yprelee Canal.

On 2nd May his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of the Canadian Field Artillery was blown to bits by an artillery bombardment. As many of Helmer’s body parts as possible were somehow gathered and buried at Essex Farm Cemetery. At the funeral, McCrae stood in for the chaplain and took the service. Later that day when he came off duty, McCrae sat on the back of an ambulance and, looking over the fresh graves and the wild poppies, penned a poem.

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.

John McCrae (1917)

John McCrae

In Flanders Fields was published on 8th December 1915 in Punch and became an immediate sensation in the trenches and around the English-speaking world. The poppy became the symbol of the war dead. It was seen as representing the souls of those who died between 1914 and 1918, transformed into a million blood-red flowers.

What’s the origin of the wreath of artificial poppies?

John McCrae did not survive the war, dying of pneumonia on 28th January 1918 while commanding No. 3 Canadian General Hospital in Boulogne. His friends and comrades, unable to find wild poppies to lay on his grave, ordered a wreath of artificial poppies from Paris.

The Poppies of Flanders Fields

Was the poppy already an emblem of death?

Yes. Archaeologists exploring a cave in Spain in 1935 found baskets of poppy capsules laid beside human remains dating back to 4000 BC. On a 3,000-year-old statue from Minoan Crete, a Poppy Goddess statue wears an opium poppy headdress. According to classical Greek myths, poppies flowered along the banks of the River Lethe which flowed to Hades, and from which the dead had to drink to forget their former existence in the world of the living. Its petals are the color of blood, and the opium poppy is a source of morphine, a powerful painkiller which made the physical agonies of war more bearable, and which was a derivative of opium.

What’s the origin of the sale of poppies?

McCrae’s poem inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to make and sell red silk poppies which were brought to England by a French woman, Anna Guérin. The British Legion, formed in 1921, ordered 9 million of these poppies and sold them on 11 November that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately and that first ever Poppy Appeal raised over £106,000 to help WW1 veterans with employment and housing. Poppy-wearing gathered momentum, and in 1933 poppies started to be made in a purpose-built factory in Richmond, which produces millions of poppies each year.

What are some good books on poppies?

Click on the book title to order the book from Amazon.co.uk, or the picture of the book to order from Amazon.com. For readers in Belgium (or the Netherlands), just click here:

Where Poppies Blow books on bol.com

WHERE POPPIES BLOW by John Lewis-Stempel

This is a wonderful book that I can highly recommend. I learned a lot, and ended up with even more respect for these mostly young men who lived and died in such an appalling war. But Lewis-Stempel also shows the amazingly close connections – both positive and negative – between the soldiers who fought on the front line and nature.

It starts with the positive aspects, and the surprising fact that no man’s land was, effectively, a bird reserve with a barbed wire perimeter: ‘If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be’ says one soldier. Experiences with birds, especially when they were singing in the lulls, lifted their spirits: “They offered a touch of Heaven in Hell.”

Lewis-Stempel also covers the benefits of close connections with dogs, horses and mules on and beyond the Front Line, as well as gardening in all its varied aspects, even in prisoner-of-war camps. The swathes of poppies of course made a huge impact, tinged by the fact that “the blood of soldiers is the fertiliser for the poppy.”

But he also brings us down to earth with the horrendous accounts of infestations of lice and rats in the trenches; the massacres of horses and mules; even the bacteria and viruses that brought death.

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

This is a great starting point for anyone interested in reading more poetry from the Great War. It includes all the best known pieces by the well-known poets such as Sassoon, Owen, Brooke, Rosenberg etc., but also has an excellent range of poets that are rarely included in anthologies of war poems.

The War Poems Of Wilfred Owen

For me, and for millions of others, Wilfred Owen is the most powerful of war poets. He composed nearly all of his poems in slightly over a year, from August 1917 to September 1918. In November 1918 he was killed in action at the age of 25, one week before the Armistice.

Where the poppies now grow by Hilary Robinson

A delightfully written book that will introduce young children (e.g. aged 5 to 10) to trench warfare. It’s beautifully illustrated, and deals with a difficult subject with great tenderness and sympathy.

More about the First World War

Here are some other articles of mine about the First World War in Belgium:

The Poppies of Flanders Fields

Where can I walk around Flanders Fields?

I describe a couple of walks through Flanders Fields. They start from the excellent Memorial Museum of Passchendaele, go into the surrounding countryside, and take in some of the most poignant cemeteries in Flanders Fields.

Any questions about Flanders Fields, poppies, or the First World War in Flanders, drop me a line and I will do my best to research the answer.

Want to read more articles like this?

I hope you have enjoyed this article. To get new posts on Discovering Belgium straight into your email inbox, simply add your email below. Many thanks!

Denzil from Discovering Belgium

111 replies »

  1. Thank you so much, Denzil, for this timely, thoughtful, in-depth look back at the significance of poppies on November 11th each year. It’s so nice to know the history of why we wear poppies today as we honor the service and sacrifice of so many brave veterans and their families!
    With much gratitude…

  2. It is difficult to imagine just how awful life in those trenches must have been. The poppies that bright some colour and beauty yet flourished because of the nutrients from the dead. A very apt representation of the lost souls…

  3. Thanks Denzil, such a lot of fascinating information. Thank you also for the review of ‘Where Poppies Blow’. I really would like to read that, but think I may be too sensitive to read the bits about the horses and mules. 🙁

    • Yes, some of the information was too harrowing. We sometimes forget about the loss of animal life during those four years. The number of horses and mules that were brought over from both North and South America was astounding.

      • Thanks for warning me, Denzil … I think I’d better pass on this one. I do find it amazing though to discover how much comfort nature brought to the soldiers in the trenches.

  4. Terrific, Denzil. I’d never seen this explanation of the horrific “fertilizer” that promoted the growth during WWI. I’m going to order that book today. And glad you included a mention of the flowers in ancient times, used in burial rites even during the Neolithic period.
    I especially appreciate your post, because folks in the U.S. are barely commemorating the First World War. We’re an unhappy, divided and distracted land right now. Remembering the sacrifices and costs of wars is a vital part of trying to understand history and to try to progress, honoring the fallen and the veterans is also essential to really feeling the value of peace.
    I’ve just moved to Boston, and am looking forward to revisiting Saint-Gaudens’ memorial to the Mass. 54th Regiment (from the American Civil War) – – it’s a wonderful work of art, and I’ll try to get a close-up shot of the poppies incorporated in it.

    • Thanks Robert for your enthusiastic response. Over here we are still very occupied with commemoration and remembrance, especially with the centenary of the Armistice approaching. I look forward to reading a post of the Saint-Gaudens’ m emorial.

  5. I’m shivering as I read this entire article, Denzil. I knew only a little of what you’ve written about here. The history of the poppy is one of those things that connects the profane world to the spiritual and reminds us that whatever our beliefs, we are linked by our common desire to live in peace within the family of man. I’m going to show this post to my husband, a Vietnam War vet. Thank you for a profoundly moving presentation.

  6. Like so many people here, I have never understood or taken the time to discover the poppy connection to war, but I have always wondered about it. You have made it so easy to learn with this post. And I really appreciate the poems. They are poignant.

    I am happy to share this today. Thank you so much!

  7. Beautiful poems and interesting history. I actually didn’t know that the poppies were a symbol of remembrance (and war), until I saw them everywhere during a visit to New Zealand on Anzac Day, where the battle of Gallipoli also a place I had never heard of until then) seemed to be talked and exhibited as the main event during the war. Did you find these two poems in the book “WHERE POPPIES BLOW” as well?

    • Hello Kim, thanks for following and reading. And also for the link to your own blog. It’s late now but I have bookmarked it to read properly tomorrow.

  8. Great post Denzil. We visited the WWI memorials at the end of this summer. They are impressive and terribly depressing. The 2 WWs destroyed any illusion of linear progression in history. Attila, Genghis Khan or the Vikings didn’t cause anywhere near 75 Million casualties (of which 45 M civilians).

    • Thanks Hans for your comment. What I find most depressing at the moment is the rift between what “normal people” believe and hope for as lessons learned from these two world wars and their consequences, and what some of the world leader seem to believe, that aggression is going to lead to peace.

      • Dulce bellum inexpertis – “War is sweet to them that know it not”. (Pindar via Erasmus https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Pindar). Erasmus went even so far that there is no circumstance that ever justifies war. Hence belligerent leaders should loose their mandates in an ideal world. And fortunately we’re not too old to remain a trifle idealistic. But then again, neither Pindar or Erasmus were ever confronted with anything like the two World Wars.

  9. Lest we forget. Took my four year old to lay our poppy yesterday at Cimitere de Bruxelles. Moving as ever to see the war graves (Commonwealth, Belgian, German. So many young lives.) It’s a hundred years after a family member Was killed at Oppy Wood, Battle of Arras. Too easy to forget the lessons of history and the carnage of war on the European continent. Thank you for your ever inspirational blogging.

    • Thank you for your positive comment Julia. I wonder what your 4-year old thought of it. Maybe too young to understand, but I feel sure he or she would have picked up the solemnity and seriousness of the place. It’s good that we pass the message down to our children and grandchildren.

  10. Most insightful blog post of the week thx. For me the line the ‘war created prime conditions for poppies to flourish in Flanders and north-west France’ was an eye opener. I never thought about this.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this . . . . moving to discover the history behind the poppy especially as I visited the Flanders fields this year. Thank you also for the book recommendation, have ordered . . now just hope I can find the courage to read it.

  12. I didn’t know this about the poppies! Thanks for the information.
    My grandfather and his brother (Canadian) both fought in WWI. The brother, Henry, went missing at The Somme. My husband and I toured WWI battlefields and Cemeteries a few years ago. It was both sobering and gratifying to find the approximate local where Henry’s resting place might have been marked by red poppies. https://gogreygirl.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/in-flanders-fields/

  13. Prachtig Denzil.Ik kende het verhaal van de klaprozen en we mogen nooit de strijd van zoveel jonge mannen vergeten.Nooit meer oorlog maar we hebben er niets uitgeleerd..Een paar egotrippers sturen af op weer een oorlog.

  14. Denzil, this is absolutely lovely. I want to re-blog it on Veteran’s Day this year. I was in Hungary in 1997 as a volunteer morale, recreation specialist with U.S. Army. I visited my friend in Sarajevo. Sarajevo was a city of camouflage and roses. Camouflage uniforms from the NATO countries were lodged in various parts of the city. The roses were blooming around the bullet pocked/mortar punched buildings because of nitrogen from the ammo as you described here. On the streets, the Roses of Sarajevo were really an imprint left from a mortar shell. The remaining scar looked like a rose and many of the scars were filled in with red resin as a memorial to the people killed during the siege. According to some estimates an average of 329 bombs hit Sarajevo every day, with a maximum of 3,777 recorded on July 22, 1993.

  15. Hi Denzil. Pat’s reblog prompted me to follow this blog. This post was a revelation to me. The reasons for the spread of poppies during the war are entirely logical, although macabre. The impartial processes of the natural world and the pathos of humanity. It reminds me of the way salmon carcasses carried out of creeks into the forest help to fertilize the forests. And I appreciate your mention of all the animals that perished in the war. I recently learned from a post on Sue Vincent’s blog about purple poppies to commemorate non-human deaths by war, and red and white ones for men executed for “desertion.”

  16. Thank you for such a well researched article. Here is a link to a wonderful rendition of ‘In Flanders Fields’ as spoken by Leonard Cohen that I think captures the mood of this beautiful poem perfectly:

  17. Hello, thank you for this excellent post. Where exactly can I find the fields where the poppies grow? I am going to be in Belgium in late March, and would love to sneak away for a day and try to make my way there.

    • Dave, unfortunately the huge fields of poppies that appeared during WW1 no longer exist. They were a phenomenon largely confined to that time period. Modern agriculture has removed them, although of course poppies still appear but no longer in such vast swathes. I hope you enjoy your trip to Belgium in March; let me know if you have any other specific questions.

  18. It’s interesting to connect this historical background with my early memories of ladies selling the silk poppies on the streets of towns in the USA just before and during Memorial Day, a holiday to remember those who’ve fallen during war.

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