Early November is a time associated with poppies for all those who live in Britain, its colonies, or its Commonwealth. However, these poppies do not blossom in fields: they are paper flowers sold by organisations set up to help war veterans, such as the Royal British Legion. These poppies symbolise the suffering and courage of all servicemen and women killed in battle, and are most associated with 11 November, the anniversary of the end of the First World War in 1918. In Britain, this is known as Remembrance Day.

Poppies being sold for the Royal British Legion

Of late, remembrance poppies have not always been made of paper: celebrities have been seen wearing jewel-encrusted poppy brooches. But the origins of the symbol are not so glamorous. It is true that the clusters of red field poppies still to be seen growing in the First World War battlefields and war cemeteries in France, Belgium and Gallipoli were often the only sight of natural beauty the soldiers could hope for in the ugly landscape of trench warfare. However, they also remind us that it took the repeated disturbance of the earth created by this type of warfare, and the multiple burials it occasioned, to make the poppy seeds germinate and grow.

Poppies growing in a former Flanders battlefield

How did the poppy become such a powerful symbol of remembrance? The answer is found in the lives of John McCrae and Moina Michael, a man and woman of similar age, who both tried to do what they felt was their duty in a time of war. They never met, but both were moved to use their talents and passions to honour the war dead, while supporting the survivors who came home suffering both physically and mentally. Their efforts united and galvanised many more into action.

Lieutenant Alexis Helmer

The story of these two people's achievements began early in May 1915, among the Canadian regiments in Flanders, Belgium, during the second battle of Ypres, one of the most savage of the First World War. On 2 May 1915, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, an artillery officer from Ottawa, Canada, was killed near his trench dugout by an exploding shell. In civilian life, twenty-two-year-old Helmer had been a student of the man who was second-in-command of his regiment, the First Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. This man, from Guelph, Ontario, was Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872 – 1918), then aged forty-three, who was a qualified doctor as well as an experienced soldier and university professor. He took charge of several field hospitals. As the commanding officer was away it fell to McCrae to conduct Helmer's burial service, in growing darkness, at Essex Farm British Military Cemetery.

John McCrae in uniform around 1914

Next day, McCrae spent his rest period sitting outside the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station, or first aid post, and writing, looking out from time to time over the cemetery where Helmer had been buried. He appeared tired, but calm, after the emotional intensity of the previous day. When a sergeant-major of Helmer's age, Cyril Allinson, came to deliver post, McCrae gave him his notebook to read. He had written a poem, with the title 'We Shall Not Sleep'. Allinson's first impression was that this was "just an exact description" of the view that lay before them:

​In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

McCrae was at first dissatisfied with the poem, and threw it away, but it was retrieved by another officer. During 1915 the poem was sent to the Spectator, a British magazine, which returned it; on 8 December 1915 it was published in Punch, another magazine well known in Britain. Within a short time, and under the new title of 'In Flanders Fields', it became the most popular poem of the First World War. In January 1918, John McCrae died of pneumonia and meningitis in the military hospital he was then commanding at Boulogne-sur-mer, France.

Moina Michael

A little over nine months later on 9 November 1918, two days before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war, YWCA volunteer Moina Belle Michael (1868 – 1944), was on duty at the Overseas YMCA Conference at Columbia University, New York City. At forty-nine, she was close in age to McCrae; like him, she was a teacher. When war broke out, she had been a university professor in her native Georgia.

Now, sitting in a room where, in the past, she knew servicemen had said their goodbyes to their loved ones before being deployed to battlefields overseas, Moina found that the magazine she was reading had reproduced McCrae's poem 'In Flanders Fields'. She had read it before, but was taken by the brightly-coloured illustrations on this version, showing the figures of soldiers in battle dwindling to poppies growing around ranks of stone crosses. Suddenly the last verse seemed to be speaking to her directly:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from falling hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

In her 1941 autobiography, 'The Miracle Flower: The Story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy', Moina explained that she felt the poem had given her "a full spiritual experience. It seemed as though the silent voices again were vocal, whispering in sighs of anxiety unto anguish . . . " Her first impulse at this moment was similar to McCrae's after he had buried Helmer: she took a blank envelope and expressed her emotions in poetry, writing a response to the poem called 'We Shall Keep The Faith'. But then it occurred to her that a lot more could be done.

Moina decided to begin wearing a red poppy, like those that grew on the Flanders battlefields, as a sign of respect to the servicemen killed in action. She was surprised by how difficult it proved to buy such a thing in New York, but also noticed that the soldiers she worked with at that time were united in welcoming the idea. The few red silk poppies she did obtain were in great demand. From these first poppies, there developed the symbol of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy, which to this day raises large amounts of money for war veterans' organizations all over the world.

Moina Michael's fundraising led to her being known as "the Poppy Lady", and many honours came her way because of her humanitarian work. Her autobiography was dedicated to the memory of John McCrae, whose words had inspired so much of her work. Together they had done their bit to keep alive the memory of countless lost young men - of whom Alexis Helmer was only one.

War graves at Tyne Cot Cemetery, Ypres