Ad Image credit: Kenneth Macqueen, Wild poppies, Mont Kemmel (detail) (c. 1917-1918, watercolour on paper, 11.9 cm x 17.6 cm) AWM ART93950.

Honouring sacrifice: the significance of the red poppy

22 April 2024 Written by Celia Purdey

The red poppy has become an enduring symbol of remembrance for those who have suffered and perished in wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping endeavours.

The origins of the red poppy or Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) as a symbol of remembrance traces back to the fields of Flanders, where Canadian Lieutenant- Colonel John McCrae, after the second battle of Ypres in 1915, penned the poem In Flanders Fields. Inspired by the red blooms that adorned the graves of fallen soldiers, McCrae immortalised the red poppy as the flower of remembrance.

Interestingly, before World War I, historical records indicate that poppies were not widespread in the fields of Flanders, largely due to the impoverished soil lacking essential nutrients and proper plowing. However, the turmoil of war, including the detonation of artillery shells and shrapnel, disturbed the earth and facilitated the germination of poppy seeds by exposing them to the necessary light. In soldier’s folklore, the bright red of the poppy was said to be from the blood of their comrades that had soaked into the ground.

The journey of the red poppy from the battlefields of Flanders to the international emblem of fundraising owes much to the work of two women – French lecturer Anna Guérin and American professor Moina Michael. Moina Michael, inspired by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, began wearing a red poppy as a symbol of faith and remembrance. She shared her sentiment at a YMCA meeting in 1918, after which Anna Guérin expanded the idea by selling poppies to support veterans and their families. This initiative gained traction across allied nations, notably with the Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League (predecessor to the RSL) selling poppies for Armistice Day in 1921. The poppy, symbolising sacrifice, became widely accepted for Remembrance Day observances. Its significance extended to Anzac Day, with poppy-laden wreaths becoming a tradition.

Poppies also hold a poignant presence on the panels of the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour, serving as individual tributes to those commemorated. This tradition originated during the internment of the Unknown Australian Soldier on November 11, 1993. As visitors queued to honour the Soldier in the Hall of Memory, they passed by the Roll of Honour, where many chose to leave a single flower. By day’s end, hundreds of RSL poppies had been placed into the crevices between the panels, symbolising collective remembrance for the fallen.

In England, the red poppy found its official emblematic status through the British Legion in 1919, serving as a tribute to the fallen and a lifeline for the living.

On Remembrance Day and Anzac Day, Australians proudly wear the red poppy, honouring the fallen, preserving their memory, and fostering bonds of camaraderie with soldiers of all Allied nations. The sale of them serves not only as a symbol of remembrance but also as a means of raising funds for welfare work, a testament to the enduring spirit of compassion and solidarity.

While the red poppy stands as the quintessential symbol of war-related remembrance, it is also joined by other coloured poppies, each carrying its own significance. The white poppy, representing peace and honouring all war victims, serves as a reminder of the ongoing pursuit of unity and hope amid the devastation of conflict. Additionally, the purple poppy pays tribute to the often-overlooked heroes of war – the animals who bravely served alongside humans, their sacrifices eternally remembered.

As a symbol of courage, sacrifice, and resilience, wearing a poppy reminds us of the enduring human spirit in the face of adversity.

A NOTE ABOUT THE ARTWORK: Wild poppies, Mont Kemmel by Kenneth Macqueen

Painted by Kenneth Macqueen when he served in the Australian Imperial Forces on the Western Front in 1917-18, this small yet impactful watercolour beautifully contrasts the softness and enduring beauty of nature against the horrors of war. Despite its diminutive size, the painting’s simplicity evokes a sense of tranquility, while the red poppies symbolise the resilience and sacrifice of those affected by conflict. More than 100 years later, it continues to serve as a poignant reminder of the power of hope, and nature’s ability to persevere even in the darkest of times.

Did you know?

Throughout history, animals have played crucial roles in warfare. In Australia, dogs tracked, horses, camels, and donkeys transported soldiers and equipment, while pigeons delivered messages. To honour their contributions, the not-for-profit Australian War Animal Memorial Organisation issues purple poppy badges. The National Day for War Animals in Australia, observed on February 24th, commemorates their service and sacrifices, acknowledging their role alongside humans in times of conflict.

Find out more information about the history and research of the red poppy and traditions.