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The flowers of war and the many colours of remembrance

November 11, 2018

Canadian poppies clockwise: original flocked paper version (1922), poppy with the green centre I grew up with (1973), poppy I’m wearing (2018) and the Royal Canadian Legion’s new digital poppy at—Canadian War Museum/Royal Canadian Legion

Red, white, blue, purple and black poppies, white daisies, blue cornflowers, chrysanthemums and forget-me-nots—war remembrance flowers have come in many varieties and almost every colour—including the rainbow, if at least one academic has their way.

The United Kingdom and many of the former colonies of the UK, including here in Canada, Australia and the United States, have chosen, since the early 1920s, to use the red poppy as the national symbol of remembrance for the casualties of all wars since the First World War. However, no two countries use the same style of red remembrance poppy.

The remembrance poppy you remember depends on where you live

The image that may come to mind when a Canadian thinks of Remembrance Day and “the fallen”.

Canada is alone in continuing to use a non-recyclable, flocked, rigid plastic red poppy, loosely-fitted with a sharp steel stick pin. Not only is Canada’s decades-old poppy design environmentally irresponsible, it is notoriously accident prone—both to falling off the lapel (thanks to its smooth straight pin) and then to being a potential sharp pain in the foot (or paw), wherever it falls (again thanks to the straight pin).

As I have written at length, I believe that Canadians should donate to the Royal Canadian Legion’s poppy fund but think about reusing their previous year’s poppy, or making a better one of their own (as many do) until the Legion replaces its plastic and steel poppy with a new design that is more respectful to everything and everyone.

British Royal Legion’s mostly-paper poppy. (I’m not clear if the black button is pressed paper or plastic.)

People in England have been pinning on a recyclable, embossed paper remembrance poppy for more than 15 years now. And in 2003, the British Royal Legion finally traded the sharp steel pin for a blunt green plastic stem, reportedly for fear of “compensation claims from ‘injured’ members of the public.”

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (which, together with England, make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain) use red remembrance poppies made of much the same materials as England’s but of slightly different styles.

American Legion poppy and a Veterans of Foreign Wars “Buddy Poppy”.

In the United States there are two competing red remembrance poppies, both featuring a flower of thin (probably nylon) fabric, with a green-coated, flexible wire stem.

Australia’s fabric and wire poppy and New Zealand’s felt and plastic ANZAC poppy.

Australia’s red remembrance poppy is similarly made of fabric and wire, while nearby New Zealand also has an ANZAC remembrance poppy made of red felt and a green plastic stem.

Peace is a poppy of a different colour

One version of the white peace poppy. It comes in sticker form as well.

An alternate white poppy, symbolizing both remembrance and a desire for an end to war, appeared in the UK in 1933, over a decade after the establishment of the Royal British Legion‘s annual red poppy appeal.

This white poppy—featuring white fabric petals around a green button centre labelled with the word “peace” in white lettering—was first sold by the Co-operative Women’s Guild, a strongly pacifist organization, then at its height, with 1,500 branches and 72,000 members.

In 1936 the UK-based Peace Pledge Union (PPU) began also distributing the white peace poppy and continues to do so today. On its website the PPU explains that the white poppy stand for three things: “remembrance for all victims of war, a commitment to peace and a challenge to attempts to glamorize or celebrate war”.

It’s little late now but white peace poppies are listed as being available this year at eight locations in Vancouver, according a Canadian peace poppy website.

In 1936, the same year that the PPU began helping distribute peace poppies, the Royal British Legion’s remembrance poppy underwent a one year change in hue—from red to yellow, according to the Madame Guérin website, one of the most authoritative online histories of the remembrance poppy,

Purple poppy for animals. black poppy rose for people of colour and a proposed rainbow poppy for LGBTQ+.

In addition to the red and white poppy, a few other, different-hued, remembrance poppies have been created to draw attention to the war sacrifice of a specific group.

The purple poppy was adopted in 2006 in the UK to remember the animals that have served in war. In 2011, the black poppy rose was chosen to signify the wartime sacrifices made by African, black, West Indian and Pacific islander communities.

There have also been a few calls for a rainbow poppy—to simply be the most inclusive poppy of all, or to specifically honour the wartime sacrifices made by lesbians, gays, bisexuals and queers.

Mathematician Alan Turing, for example—the father of the modern digital computer—was a young, gay man during the second world war. His singular genius led the Allies to break the Nazi cipher codes during the Second World War and helped shorten the conflict by an estimated two years. At the same time, however, his homosexuality made him a criminal and he was convicted in 1952 on charges gross indecency and subjected to chemical castration. He committed suicide as a result. (he was finally granted a royal pardon in 2013.)

Red, white and blue flowers in the lands most bled by the Great War

Two Belgian Remembrance flowers: a sort of hybrid daisy/poppy from the 1990s and a white, enamelled daisy pin from this year.

In Canadian John McCrae’s famous First World War poem In Flanders fields, “the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row”.

But the common red field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) that McCrae saw growing on the battlefields of southern Belgium and north-west France was not adopted as the war remembrance symbol in either Belgium or Francenot the same way that it was elsewhere.

In Belgium today, the red poppy has become a recognized remembrance symbol (not to mention the country’s national flower). Many sources, however, say that when McCrae wrote his poem after the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, the white daisy was the traditional flower of mourning in Belgium and it largely still is.

Several Dutch-language websites can be found that describe the daisy as a symbol of commemoration of the First World War in Belgium, including a Wikipedia page on the madeliefje (daisy) and the site of a newspaper in the Belgian town of Blankenberge in West Flanders.

The white daisy is conspicuously present as one of four remembrance flowers on a pin produced in the UK this year for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War. And the same remembrance jewellery company is offering an enamelled daisy lapel pin, described as the “national flower of Belgium for remembrance.”

Here is an interesting Great War Forum website thread from 2017 discussing the “Belgian daisy” (where some of the images for this section are borrowed from).

The white daisy also served as the symbol of Dutch resistance during the Second World. Her Royal Highness Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who escaped the Nazi invasion of her country and spent the war in the UK, encouraged Dutch refugees to wear daisies (called margriets in Dutch) on their lapels as a reminder of Holland’s resistance under occupation.

This symbolism of the daisy was reinforced in 1943 when Queen Wilhelmina’s only child, Crown Princess Juliana, named her third child (born in Canadian hospital in Ottawa) Princess Margriet.

There could only be one colour of remembrance flower for France

The 2012 version of France’s remembrance flower: the bleuet de France.

Even though a French woman named Anna A. Guérin was absolutely instrumental in convincing the UK, Canada and the United States to adopt the red poppy as the remembrance symbol for the First World War, in Madame Guérin’s own country of France, the national symbol of war remembrance became instead the bleuet de Francethe blue cornflower (Centaurea cyanus).

And by blue I mean the Bleu de Francea specific hue that has been used to represent France in liveries and heraldry, going back to the 12th century.

The bleuet (blue cornflower) especially recommended itself as a symbol of combat on French soil because it thrived (like the red field poppy) in the war-torn battlefields and because bleuet also happened to be the nickname given to the class of French conscripts (due to their new bleu horizon uniforms) who entered combat in 1916-17 and died in such great numbers on those same battlefields.

The first bleuet de France badge was created in 1916 by Suzanne Lenhardt and Charlotte Malleterre. The former was a nurse at the military hospital of Les Invalides and the latter was related by blood and marriage to two generals in the French army. The bleuet badge was conceived (much like the red poppy) to help veterans by giving them the employment of making the badges and the income from selling them.

For 19 years, the bleuet de France served unofficially as one of France’s war remembrance symbols.

In 1919, in time for the first celebration of the 1918 armistice, chrysanthemums reportedly began to be placed on all war graves in France. The heads of the French government: President Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, had decreed that henceforth all war graves should be decorated with flowers, rather than lit candles. Chrysanthemums were chosen because they were one of the few flowers that bloom in autumn.

Since then the practice of placing chrysanthemums on graves has expanded in France and become more associated with the Catholic festival of Toussaint, which celebrates “all saints” on November 1st.

In 1936 the French government finally adopted the bleu de France as the country’s official Remembrance Day flower.

Just to digress for a moment, it is a significant fact that at every step so far in this story of the promotion of national flowers of remembrance—always to help end suffering, or to raise funds to help the victims of warwomen have been the exclusive driving force.
I have mentioned some of them: Anna A. Guérin, Suzanne Lenhardt and Charlotte Malleterre, Queen Wilhelmina, and Crown Princess Juliana.
Another woman who’s name has not come up is the American Moina Belle Michael, who helped convince the American Legion at its national convention in Cleveland, in 1919, to adopt the poppy as the emblem of remembrance. You can read more about her and Anna Guérin’s role as the “poppy ladies” in my 2014 post: The point of the Remembrance poppy.

There are two sides in every war remembrance flower story

Image of a German forget-me-not remembrance flower Tweeted in November 2015 by the Embassy of Germany in London, UK.German Embassy London

What of Germany, the country that set itself against the arrayed forces of the British Empire, most of Europe and the United Statesnot once but twice in the 20th centuryhow does it remember it’s share of war dead?

in November of of 2015, The German Ambassador in London, UK, took to the German Embassy London Twitter account to Tweet: “Germany’s symbol for remembrance of the victims of war is the blue forget-me-not.”

It would seem, however, that this may be quite a late bloomer, so far as remembrance flowers are concerned.

For starters, Germany has no traditional symbol of remembrance going back to the First World War. Forget-me-not, or otherwise, this was a war Germans really just wanted to forget.

The closest Germany came was a annual Volkstrauertag or Memorial Day on the second Sunday of Lentjust for the two million soldiers who died in combat. In 1933, the day was Nazified as Heldengedenktag or the “Day of Heroes”.

After the fall of the Third Reich, Germans stopped observing the day altogether for seven years.

In 1951 (as key German industrialists who had collaborated with the Nazis, such as Alfried Krupp, had their positions and fortunes restored) the observance of Volkstrauertag was resumed, but the day was shifted to the last Sunday before Advent in November.

Online references to Germany’s blue vergissmeinnicht (“forget-me-not”) remembrance flower, such as the German Ambassador’s Tweet or a website of the Ternois region of Pas-de-Calais in the north of France, are of a very recent vintage and all of them smack of marketing and EU community-building.
The Ternois website is advertising a 2018 event called Les Chemins de mémoire de la Grande Guerre (“The Memory Trails of The Great War”) and the three, different coloured,, national remembrance flowers are a key part of the event’s logo to give a kind of equivalence to France, Belgium and Germany.

The bleu de France grows popular with Austria’s far right

Blue cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), a.k.a. the “bleuet”, a.k.a. the “Kaiser flower”.—Johnathan J. Stegeman/GNU FDL

Not only do France and Germanyonce the deadliest of enemiesnow the closest of partners in the European Union projectboth have blue remembrance flowers but, in a typically European twist, it turns out that Germany has its own close historical associations with the sacred French bleu de France.
In 2016 the BBC reported that Austria’s far-right Freedom Party had adopted the blue cornflower as its symbol, despite (or because of) the flower’s historical associationswith pan-German nationalism in the 19th Century and the Nazis in the 20th Century.

It is tradition, explained the BBC, on the opening day of the Austrian parliament for MPs to wear a flower in their buttonholes. Freedom Party politicians were wearing blue cornflowersbecause, they said, blue is the colour of their party.

What these right wing politicians knew but did not say is that in Austria, between 1934 and 1938, the blue cornflower was the symbol worn by members of the banned Nazi party so that they could recognize each other.

The good news is that Austria’s Freedom Party saw the error of its ways (splashed all over the European media) and decided in 2017 to stop using the “Nazi cornflower”.

That just leaves France but France began using the cornflower nearly 20 years earlier than the Austrian Nazis.

But not, it turns out, before the Germans.

The BBC report quotes a Vienna historian to the effect that the cornflower was a favourite of the German Kaiser Whilhelmmeaning Wilhelm I, Germany’s emperor from 1871-78. (rather than the megalomaniac Wilhelm II who launched the First World War.)

Legend has it that early in the 19th Century, during the War of the Fourth Coalition, when France defeated Prussia (Germany), the of mother of Wilhelm IQueen Louise of Prussiaalong with her family, had to flee Berlin ahead of Napoleon’s invasion of the city in 1806. At one point, the Queen and her children were forced to hide in a cornfield. To calm the fears of the young princes (including the future Kaiser Wilhelm I) the Queen wove each of them garlands of cornflowers to wear.

Wow. Too much European history.

Have we forgotten what we were supposed to remember?

Everyone in the world who wears the red poppy, or some other remembrance flower this Remembrance Day (November 11th, 2018), will be marking the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the First World War and led to the practice (among the victors at least) of wearing remembrance flowers.

“Lest we forget” is the motto and warning of Remembrance Day but the sad irony isover the last 80 years we have managed to forget the one thing that we were surely supposed to remember, namely how horrible modern war is.

Those who lived through the First World War called it The war to end all warsthis was their hope but it certainly wasn’t. There has been no end to the wars being fought around the world.

Remembering the horror of the First World War should have meant learning from our mistakes and avoiding a repeat. But seemingly, state-sponsored remembrance has only served to normalize state-sponsored carnage. Every year we simply have tens-of-thousands more victims of war to mourn and remember!

I still believe in wearing the red poppy as a visible reminder of both the victims and the horrors of war but, in the sense that it was supposed to help us put an end to war, I have to say that Remembrance Day has been a dismal failure. Click the images to enlarge them.

  1. Rick permalink

    Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

    The Royal Canadian Legion, the organization that has taken up the mantle of promoting remembrance in Canada suffers from the same problems as most other organizations. Those at the top don’t, or won’t, listen to those who are newly qualified.

    The Saturday night dances and beer parlors may have been the right medicine for those who survived WWII, but it is not for those in more recent conflicts.

    The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

    Thank you for this history of the poppy in Canada and around the world. It was a great read.


  2. Larry Retzlaff permalink

    What a terrific read. Thanks for the connections you made that never occurred to me. Keep hanging in.


  3. bravo – you have taught me a great deal that I am grateful now to know


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