What Is The Meaning Behind Wearing Red Poppies On Memorial Day?

The tradition of wearing red poppies as a symbol of remembrance for fallen soldiers holds deep historical and symbolic significance.

Its origins date back to the aftermath of World War I. Let’s explore the historical roots and symbolism of this enduring tradition.

Historical Origins and Symbolism

Following the devastation of World War I, the poppy emerged as a poignant emblem of remembrance, with millions adorning the red flowers to honor the sacrifices of the fallen soldiers. This tradition of wearing red poppies has become deeply entrenched in the culture of the United States and other nations.

Rural farmland with field edging of wild flowers including red poppies on 7th August 2023 near Wolverly, United Kingdom. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)
Mike Kemp / In Pictures via Getty Images

Symbolism of the Red Poppy

From 1914 to 1918, approximately 8.5 million soldiers lost their lives in World War I, and the scarred battlefields were transformed as resilient red poppies flourished.

During wartime, soldiers devastated fields and forests, uprooting trees and plants and causing destruction to the soil below. However, amidst the warm early spring of 1915, vibrant red flowers started to emerge from the land ravaged by battle: Papaver rhoeas, commonly referred to as the Flanders poppy, corn poppy, red poppy, and corn rose.

Interesting fact: The poppy can remain dormant in the soil for numerous years before resurfacing in large quantities, blanketing fields that had been bare for many years prior.

This symbolism was inspired by the renowned poem “In Flanders Fields,” penned by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D., who was moved by the sight of the red flowers thriving amidst the ravaged landscape.

McCrae, a Canadian who served as a brigade surgeon for an Allied artillery unit, came across a cluster of poppies that spring, shortly after the Second Battle of Ypres. Impressed by the sight of vibrant red blooms amidst the devastated terrain, McCrae composed his poem “In Flanders Field,” through which he gave voice to the fallen soldiers laid to rest under those resilient poppies.

“In Flanders Field”
By Lt. Col. John McCrae, 1915

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 in uniform. Photo courtesy of history.com

Spread of the Symbolism

The poem “In Flanders Fields,” published in late 1915, gained widespread recognition and was incorporated into numerous memorial ceremonies, firmly establishing the poppy as a symbol of the blood shed during battle.

In 1918, Moina Michael wrote another poem as a tribute to Lt. Col. McCrae’s account of the death on Flander’s field. Motivated by McCrae’s verses, Michael penned her own poem titled “We Shall Keep The Faith.” As a symbol of her faith and in honor of the sacrifices of Flanders Field, Michael pledged to always wear a red poppy. Following the war’s conclusion, she conceived the idea of crafting and selling red silk poppies to raise funds in support of returning veterans.

Her poem, along with her advocacy for using the poppy as the official symbol for honoring the fallen, contributed to the poppy’s status as an iconic symbol of history.

Due to her enthusiasm, poppies became the symbol of the American Legion, and funds were and still are utilized to support the needs of disabled veterans.

“We Shall Keep The Faith”
By Moina Michael

Oh! You who sleep in Flanders fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders field.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that you wrought
In Flanders field.

Global Adoption of the Red Poppy as a Symbol of Remembrance

Many nations, including the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Belgium, Australia, and New Zealand, have adopted the red poppy as their official symbol of remembrance.

Every November 11, known as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day, millions of people in these countries wear the red flowers to commemorate the 1918 Armistice. The Poppy Factory, now located in Richmond, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland, remains the hub of poppy production, crafting up to 45 million poppies annually.

In the United States, the tradition differs, with Americans wearing poppies on Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, to honor the sacrifices of fallen soldiers.

RELATED: The Difference Between Memorial Day & Veterans Day

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