For Kiwis, the poppy is a symbol of remembrance that’s inextricably linked with Anzac Day. But how did a single red flower come to symbolise our fallen soldiers?
The story starts in Flanders, north Belgium. Trench warfare during World War One (WWI) had transformed the countryside of Flanders from green fields to a devastated landscape of churned up mud and the make-shift graves of dead soldiers. Despite this, by the spring of 1915, peeking up through the ruin, thousands of delicate, red poppies began to bloom. They were a vivid jolt of colour and grace during the thick of war.
Poppy seeds can lie dormant in the ground for many years, only flowering in soil that’s been rooted up. Trench warfare had inadvertently created the conditions for poppies to grow in unprecedented numbers. It wasn’t just in Flanders, in 1915 Anzac soldiers also saw poppies flourishing in battlefields on the Gallipoli peninsular. Many saw the blossoming poppies as a symbol of regeneration and growth amidst a landscape of death, as if bloodshed had been transformed into beauty.
Between the crosses, row on row”
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer stationed in Flanders in 1915, was struck by the connection between the dead soldiers and the blood-red poppies after burying his best friend, who had been killed in battle. Sitting on the back of an ambulance, McCrae wrote, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / between the crosses, row on row.” The lines were part of his poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, which spoke for the dead soldiers and their fear that they would be forgotten.
Legend has it that McCrae threw his poem away but another soldier found it and sent it in to a British magazine. The poem had an instant and enormous effect on its readers. It was translated into dozens of languages, published all around the world and eventually became one of the most famous poems of the war.
In 1918, two days before the signing of the Armistice that ended WWI, American professor Moina Michael was volunteering at a YMCA war conference in New York. During a break, she stumbled across McCrae's poem in the November Ladies Home Journal. She was deeply moved and hastily penned a poem in response, in which she pledged to wear a red poppy in honour of the dead. Later that day she bought twenty five red silk poppies at Wanamaker’s department store and proudly pinned one to her coat collar. Explaining to the conference delegates that she was wearing a poppy in memory of “all who died in Flanders fields”, she handed out the remaining poppies for them to wear. This was the first time a group of people had worn poppies in remembrance of the fallen soldiers.
McCrae’s poem continued to light a fire in Moina Michael's heart. At her own expense, she began a tireless and determined two year campaign to get the poppy emblem adopted as a national symbol of remembrance in the United States to raise funds for returned servicemen. In 1921, the American Legion, founded by WWI war veterans, convened in Cleveland and agreed to use the poppy as a memorial symbol for people to wear annually on Armistice Day, 11 November.
Taking notes at the Cleveland convention was a visiting delegate from the French YMCA Secretariat, Madame Anna E. Guérin. Northern France had been devastated by WWI and there were many widows and orphaned children left destitute. Inspired by Moina Michael, Madame Guérin came up with a grand plan to employ French widows to manufacture the Armistice Day silk poppies and sell them around the world to raise money for the French orphans. For the next year Madame Guérin drummed up support for her idea, visiting or sending representatives to meet with veterans’ organisations in America, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. Her representative, Colonel Alfred Moffat, put the idea to the newly founded Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association (RSA) who placed the first order for poppies from Madame Guérin’s French Children’s League in 1921.
In a twist of fate, the ship carrying the French poppies arrived in New Zealand too late for them to be sold for Armistice Day 1921. So the RSA decided to hold the poppies back and wait until Anzac Day the following year. The first Poppy Day appeal was held in 1922 the day before Anzac Day. It was a huge success and many centres sold out early in the day. The RSA sent some of the money raised to the French Children’s League and used the remaining funds to assist needy, unemployed returned Kiwi soldiers and their families. The Poppy Day appeal in New Zealand turns 94 years old this year and it’s still going strong.
This year the RSA has teamed up with Z Energy to bring Kiwis a new take on the traditional lapel poppy: a large sturdy poppy with suction cups that can be used on any vehicle or window. They also come with plastic ties so those who ride on two wheels won’t miss out. These special edition poppies are being sold exclusively at Z Energy stations throughout the country for $10. All proceeds will go to the RSA to support past and present New Zealand Defence Force service personnel and their families, including the New Zealand Police.
RSA Chief Executive David Moger says, “Anzac Day is not just a day of remembrance, it’s also a day that honours returned Kiwi servicemen and women, making it a really important day for the nation. We think it makes great sense to sell this year’s car poppies with the help of Z Energy and their service stations.”
Z’s Community Manager, Christine Langdon, says Z’s commitment to New Zealand communities makes the partnership with the RSA a really natural fit.
“We’re really committed to supporting communities across New Zealand. Given Anzac Day is such an important and significant day of remembrance for the actions and sacrifices of New Zealand Service men and women, we knew that supporting the RSA’s fundraising was the right thing to do.”
The large car poppies are available at Z Stations throughout the country until Anzac Day, Monday 25 April 2016, or until stocks run out.