NOW

Why We Wear Poppies On Remembrance Day

It's time to re-read John McCrae's beautiful poem.

11/11/2016 10:02 AM AEDT | Updated 11/11/2016 10:03 AM AEDT
NEW! HIGHLIGHT AND SHARE
Highlight text to share via Facebook and Twitter
UK Press via Getty Images
Lest we forget.

Today marks 98 years since the end of World War One. As we observe a minute's silence at 11am to honour those who have died in world wars and other horrific conflicts, it's a good time to use Remembrance Day to remind ourselves about the traditions behind the day.

Lest we forget the importance of the day, why the 11th of November is the most important day and the significance of wearing a poppy so we never forget the sacrifices made, the lives lost and also for the people who returned from war alive but utterly broken.

Why Remembrance Day is 11/11

At 11am on the 11th November 1918, soldiers put down their weapons for the first time since war broke out, four years prior. The Germans had ordered an armistice -- which means 'suspension of fighting' -- which resulted in a peace settlement and unconditional surrender.

On the first anniversary of the armistice in 1919, Australian journalist Edward Honey who was working in London at the time, proposed the one minute silence at London's Cenotaph. The tradition has been maintained ever since. We are silent so we can think deeply about the lost lives and the shattered families.

CharlesWilliamsCompany
Poppies being laid on the tomb of the unknown soldier on remembrance day.

The second anniversary in 1920 was incredibly significant as Remembrance Day became a funeral to mark the arrival of the remains of an unknown soldier who had been killed on the battlefields of the Western Front. Unknown soldiers, named as such because they could not be identified, were given full military honours in London and Paris.

Other countries, including Australia, followed that tradition and the grave of the unknown soldier in the War Memorial in Canberra is visited daily.

On the second anniversary of the armistice in 1920 the commemoration was given added significance when it became a funeral, with the return of the remains of an unknown soldier from the battlefields of the Western Front. Unknown soldiers were interred with full military honours in Westminster Abbey in London and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

POOL New / Reuters
Prince Charles placing a poppy onto the Roll of Honour wall during the 2015 Remembrance Day ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Why we wear a poppy

During WWI the red poppy was one of the first plants to grow on the battlefields of France and Belgium. The image of the red poppy soon became a symbol of the blood shed by fallen soldiers, seeping into the earth.

It was the sight of poppies on the battlefield at Ypres in 1915 that inspired Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae to pen his beautiful poem In Flanders Fields. Throughout 19th Century literature, the poppy has symbolised sleep or a state of oblivion.

But from WWI onward, it has been overtaken by a more powerful image -- the sacrifice of life and the spilling of blood.

For Australians interested in reading the medical records of those who survived the wars, the National Archives of Australia recently released thousands of fully digitised repatriation records.

More than a million people have already accessed the records, giving them an insight into the problems faced by veterans when they returned home. For many, the horrors of war never ended.

Some of the 256,000 WWI repatriation files contain hundreds of pages of information -- often revealing horrendous details of their ongoing battles with illness, disfigurement and shellshock.

University of Sydney historian Dr Peter Hobbins said Remembrance Day marks the end of an era of sacrifice, suffering and death.

"What's often less appreciated is that it also heralded a new relationship between Australians and our governments. From repatriation medical benefits, to the Spanish influenza pandemic, the end of World War I saw a fundamental change in what we expected from our healthcare system, and what we would surrender to achieve it," Hobbins said.

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 (1872–1918)

More On This Topic

Advertisement
Advertisement