Forces Charities

The Royal British Legion at 100: A brief history of the poppy

LISTEN: ‘We Are The Legion’ author Julie Summers talks to Jade Callaway about the history of the iconic red poppy

Why do we associate the poppy with our war dead and why is it now at the heart of the annual national commemoration of Remembrance?

This is one of the themes examined by author Julie Summers whose new book ‘We Are The Legion’ documents the rich history of the Royal British Legion as the charity, founded in 1921, celebrates its centenary.

The author Julie Summers focuses on some of her favourite discoveries about the military charity including the history of the iconic red poppy, the evolution of Remembrance, the importance of employment support for veterans, how the RBL supports wounded, injured and sick personnel and she examines The Legion’s past, present and future.

To mark the RBL’s 100 years of supporting the UK’s armed forces and leading the nation in Remembrance, BFBS, the Forces Station, has been speaking to the author about some of the most engaging moments in the charity’s history with a special series of reports by broadcaster Jade Callaway.

Here, we present the first part of the series and take a look at the RBL and the iconic symbol of Remembrance, the Poppy – exploring why we wear them with pride each year.

How The Royal British Legion Began

The British Legion was formed on May 15, 1921, to support servicemen and their families in the aftermath of the harrowing and deadly First World War.

The charity was created when four national organisations of ex-serviceman came together to fight the injustices faced by those who had returned home from the trenches.

Wounded Sick Injured Veterans Credit Royal British Legion

The goal was to ensure that those who had given so much for their country received fair treatment, were offered support and were remembered for their sacrifice. Fifty years after its formation, Royal was added to British Legion, to make it the charity we all know today.

An image strongly associated with Remembrance around the world is the poppy. They are made and bought in their tens of millions each year, raising vital funds for The Royal British Legion. You can wear a completely recyclable one made of paper, an enamel pin or even drink Poppy Gin. Even man’s best friend can sport a poppy collar and lead. 

But why do we associate the poppy with our war dead? A world-renowned poem, written in 1915 - “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae - is where the story begins.

In Flanders Fields Poem Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae Credit Royal British Legion

Who Wrote In Flanders Fields?

Canadian doctor and soldier Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was stationed in the trenches of an area of Ypres known as Flanders in April 1915.  

His close friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, 22, died in battle on May 2, 1915, when a six-inch, high explosive cannon shell burst, killing him instantly. 

After they buried his body, Lt Col McCrae noticed that poppies grew quickly where the dead lay. This observation inspired him to write the poem 'In Flanders Fields'.

"If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow 

In Flanders fields.” 

Written, in 1915, as an act of remembrance, 'In Flanders Fields' sums up the sense of loss and tragedy felt by so many during both world wars and operations and conflicts ever since. 

Madame Anna Guérin Credit Royal British Legion

Why Do We Mark Remembrance With A Poppy?

So moving was the poem that American academic Moina Michael was inspired to use the poppy as a symbol to represent all who died during The Great War to ensure their sacrifice is never forgotten. Julie explains that the poppy came to the UK from Canada but it was more circuitous than that, saying: 

“In the First World War a woman called Madame Anna Guérin who was from France but was working as a lecturer in the United States, and an American woman called Moina Michael came up with the idea of the poppy as a symbol of Remembrance and of hope for the future.” 

The poppy was widely adopted across America in 1920 thanks to Madame Guérin. In early 1921 she travelled to Canada and in Toronto received an invitation from the then Prince Of Wales, who became the British Legion’s first Patron, to go to London and introduce the poppy to the newly formed British Legion, founded by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig Founder of Royal British Legion Credit RBL

Madame Guérin arrived in the UK in September 1921 and, during a meeting with Colonel Crossfield, announced that one million poppies would be made by the widows and orphans in France. She offered to pay for this out of her own money but despite this generosity, the finance committee’s reaction was negative. Julie explains: 

“They said 'who is Madame Guérin? Who wants poppies? What is this about? What are her credentials?' 

“So, a man called Sir Herbert Brown was sent over to Paris to check out Madame Guérin and to make sure that she was able to make the poppies.”

Wear A Flanders Poppy Campaign Poster Haig's Fun Remembrance Day Credit Royal British Legion

Early Days Of The Poppy Appeal

After this visit, it was decided that a total of nine million poppies should be made. President Haig was keen for a 'Poppy Day Appeal' to coincide with Remembrance Day in November that year. In posters for the appeal, people were encouraged to “Wear A Flanders Poppy” after the poem which inspired the whole remembrance campaign, written six years previously. 

Six weeks on from a standing start, the first Poppy Appeal was so well received they sold out and raised £106,000, the equivalent of £5.2 million in today's money and the beginnings of a tradition which soon went global. 

The early Poppy Day appeals were not just in the UK, people took part in them all around the world. The Legion had branches in every country from where men had come to serve so there was a huge presence around the world. Julie said: 

“When they did the annual reports of the Poppy Day appeals, there would be photographs from Jamaica or in then Tanganyika now Tanzania. 

“There was even a story of a very remote place in South America where the poppies had to be made and sent out by April in order to arrive in time for Poppy Day in November.” 

'We Are The Legion' is available to buy now from the Poppy Shop.

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