The poppy and remembrance

By Paula Kitching, published 1st November 2019

Historian Paula Kitching reflects on the enduring symbol of the poppy.

It’s that time of year again when people start to pin a poppy to their lapel. Throughout late spring and summer the poppy grows wild all over Europe, and then for a few weeks each year the poppy stops being just a wild flower and takes on a greater significance. Formed into wreaths the poppy is laid on memorials up and down the UK and across the Commonwealth. This custom has existed now for a little under a hundred years, but like so many of the things that we now associate with Remembrance its roots are in the First World War.

The poppy was one of the few living things that survived on the battlefields of Western Europe during the Great War. Plucked from the earth, it was frequently sent home in letters to loved ones as well as making an appearance in the poems that have formed such a strong part of the cultural legacy of that time. It became a symbol of hope to many – a reminder of the beauty that the earth could supply as well as an example that life could survive when everything else seemed desolate. Once the conflict was over it became a reminder of those that had fallen and not returned, and as the years moved on the poppy’s yearly return allowed those still living to reflect with a feeling of hope rather than just sadness.

Now all these years later the poppy continues to be a symbol of remembrance, an opportunity to think of those who have been affected by conflict in the past and the present. It also continues to be a symbol of hope – a hope that life can continue after conflict, and that the damaging effects of war can always be survived. The poppy has at time been used for political purposes and the wearing of it has gone in and out of favour. Perhaps the poppy’s significance has changed slightly across the decades; however, the practice of Remembrance and the habit of wearing the poppy is something that has endured across generations and without any one group being able to own the idea of the poppy.

Of course the poppy is only a flower but its annual appearance on lapels rather than in the fields and roadsides is a reminder to reflect on the horrors of conflict and why it should be overcome. The poppy has become part of our historical memory and cultural presence. This November when the poppies appear use it as a time to reflect on the past and the present, of how hope was so important to those in the past as well as not forgetting those who helped to secure the present.

Remembrance time is a time of reflection, and for historians it is an opportunity to contemplate on how the past has shaped the current world and what insights it might provide for the future. It is an opportunity to look at the individuals that make up the past and how their names and actions all come together under the symbol of a flower that once brought hope.

Listen to our podcast on the Poetry of the First World War and read our special WW1 edition of The Historian via the links below, available free to Historian Members: