If undisturbed, a poppy seed will lie on the ground for years without producing a plant, and partially for that reason, the poppy has become a symbol of war and remembrance.
Battlefields are generally torn up and then neglected for a year or two because of the carnage, thereby allowing the poppy to flourish. This was first noted after the 1693 Battle of Landen, which resulted in the loss of over 20,000 men.
The following summer the poppy seeds ground into the soil germinated and spread a red carpet of flowers amid the bleached bones of men and horses, a living memorial that would be repeated throughout the centuries on European battlefields.
In 1914 the World War began in Europe, traversing many of the same battlefields, and in December of 1915, the poem “In Flanders’ Field” was published. Written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, the poem begins, “In Flanders Field the poppies grow, between the crosses row on row …” Lt. Col McCrae was killed in action in 1918, making the poem even more poignant.
The poppy became central to the efforts of two women, Anne Guerin of France and Moina Michael of the United States in remembering the orphans, the maimed and those who died in the war. Here’s a poem Moina Michael penned, called “The Victory Emblem:”
We cherish too the poppy red
that grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies…
And now the torch and poppy red
We wear in honor of the dead
Fear naught that ye have died for naught
We’ve learned the lessons that ye taught
In Flanders’ fields
The American Legion adopted the poppy as their official flower in 1920, and artificial poppies, produced by disabled war veterans, began to be sold in 1924, spreading across the country the following year.
In the week before Memorial Day in 1932, the Hankinson News carried a story on the sale of poppies to commemorate North Dakota’s 2,560 casualties in the “War to End All Wars,” perhaps with a significance made more profound by the rise of Nazi Germany and war clouds looming.
On this Memorial Day weekend, we honor those who have served and pray for the safety of loved ones on duty around the world.
Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis
The Hankinson News May 24, 1923
The Hankinson News May 19, 1932
Dakota Datebook March 11, 2007