Remembrance Day: the history of the Poppy Appeal and the Royal British Legion

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Perhaps the most enduring symbol of the The First World War is the poppy.

That simple red flower and the Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal have become synonymous with commemorating those who gave their lives for their country during the First World War and in subsequent conflicts.

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Even though this year's event will be markedly different due to the pandemic, previously the appeal sees millions of people wear poppies on their clothing, houses and even vehicles to show their support for those who fought for their country, and the Royal British Legion’s efforts to help former servicemen and women, and their relatives.

But how did the poppy become so important?

Inspired by a poem

During the First World War, previously beautiful countryside in northern Europe was blasted, bombed and fought over again and again.

The landscape swiftly turned to fields of mud - bleak and barren scenes where little or nothing could grow.

However, delicate but resilient bright red Flanders poppies grew in their thousands, flourishing in the middle of the chaos and destruction.

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Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae inspired the start of the Poppy Appeal with his poem, In Flanders Fields (Photo: Shutterstock)

In early May 1915, shortly after losing a friend in Ypres, a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, was inspired by the sight of poppies to write the now famous poem, In Flanders Fields.

His poem in turn inspired American academic, Moina Michael, to make and sell red silk poppies which were brought to England by a French woman, Anna Guérin.

The Royal British Legion, when formed in 1921, ordered nine million of these poppies and sold them on November 11 that year.

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The first Poppy Appeal

That inaugural Poppy Appeal raised more than £106,000 and was used to help First World War veterans with employment and housing.

The following year, Major George Howson set up the Poppy Factory to employ disabled ex-servicemen.

Today, the factory and the Legion’s warehouse in Aylesford produces millions of poppies each year.

In recent years, there has been more debate surrounding the wearing of poppies (Photo: Shutterstock)

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The demand for poppies in England was so high that few were reaching Scotland. Earl Haig’s wife established the Lady Haig Poppy Factory in Edinburgh in 1926 to produce poppies exclusively for Scotland.

More than five million Scottish poppies (which have four petals and no leaf, unlike poppies in the rest of the UK) are still made by hand by disabled ex-servicemen at Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory each year and distributed by PoppyScotland.

What the poppy really means

Over the years, questions have been asked about the poppy and what it signifies.

The Royal British Legion says the poppy is a symbol of Remembrance and hope, worn by millions of people, and is red because of the natural colour of field poppies.

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It says the poppy is most definitely not a symbol of death or a sign of support for war, a reflection of politics or religion, or red to reflect the colour of blood.

To find out more about the work of the Royal British Legion and the Poppy Appeal, visit their website.