The red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is mentioned in history from the earliest times. The flower was found in Egyptian pyramids dating back 3 000 years. It featured in Homer’s Iliad and plays a central role in Greek mythology. It has become the symbol of remembrance for fallen comrades. This is explained by the simple phenomenon that the poppy’s seed can lie dormant for extremely long periods and, once exposed to sunlight, the seeds sprout and grow in abundance.
Therefore vast carpets of poppies have naturally and poignantly bloomed on the churned and bloodied earth of battlefields through the ages. Genghis Khan’s battlefields were covered with the white Asian poppy and battlefields during the Napoleonic War were covered in red poppies. Fields of poppies appeared in Flanders and elsewhere during World War 1 and inspired many anthems, songs and poems, including Lt Col John McCrae’s now famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”.
After the Great War, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide were unemployed, incapacitated and bereft as a result of war. In the UK in 1921, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium and France, formed the (Royal) British Legion to assist the men and women who served with him in battle. A group of French vererans’ widows suggested to him that the Legion sell French-made silk poppies to raise funds to support the British veterans. He ordered nine million of these poppies and sold them on 11 November 1921.
And so the tradition of wearing a red poppy in remembrance gained momentum. It is now common practise in many countries, including South Africa. The South African Legion distributes poppies in aid of military veterans and their families every year in November.
Recently, a purple poppy has been introduced, representing all animals that served and were sacrificed in war.
Symbolism of the South African Legion’s Poppy of Remembrance:
1. The four overlapping petals are tilted forward to represent a forward motion and positive action.
2. The subtle white cross at the centre of the poppy represents the white crosses marking the graves of our fallen soldiers.
3. The eleven poppy seeds represent the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when the Armistice marked the end of WW1. (The 11th seed is a teardrop.)
4. The ‘missing’ twelveth seed symbolises those who did not return.