Red poppies as a symbol of commemoration in Australia

 

In Australia and other countries of the Commonwealth, we recognise the red poppy as the commemorative flower of remembrance. The flower reminds us of those who lost their lives or suffered in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations. It's a tradition that began in the early 1900s, after World War I.

History of its symbolism

During World War I, red poppies were among the first plants to grow on the Western Front in Europe. They bloomed across the wasted battlefields of northern France and Belgium.

Three soldiers in the middle of  a field of of flowers and grass

Australian troops taking a rest from the Somme fighting in a field of red poppies near Allonville, France, 20 June 1918. AWM E02643

The flower gave Canadian medic, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, the inspiration for his poem, In Flanders Fields. McCrae wrote the poem while serving outside Ypres, Belgium, in 1915. McCrae's poem recalls the red poppies on the graves of soldiers who died on the Western Front.

In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae

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.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing 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 1918, American academic and teacher Moïna Michael was inspired to write a poem after reading McCrae's In Flanders Fields. Michael's poem is called We Shall Keep the Faith. She is known as the first person to wear a red poppy as a personal commemoration. She also encouraged the sale of poppies to raise money for veterans. This gave rise to the poppy becoming a symbol of remembrance around the world.

Georgina Groundbreakers video of alumni Moina Michael, the 'Poppy Lady'.

Frenchwoman Anna Guérin, who made artificial flowers, first sold poppies in Britain in 1921. She is known as the 'Originator of the Poppy Day'. Guérin raised money in support of veterans and the families of those who had died during World War I.

Read Madam Guérin, a research blog by social historian, Heather Anne Johnson.

In 1922, an ex-servicemen's organisation, the Royal British Legion started a factory to make poppies. The factory employed many returned soldiers. The Legion sold poppies to raise money to help veterans and their families. Selling poppies is still a big part of its fundraising campaign today.

The poppy has long been a part of commemorations held on the anniversary of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, which we now call Remembrance Day.

Today, the red poppy has become a very special symbol of commemoration on:

At an Anzac Day dawn service in Palestine in 1940, each soldier dropped a red flower from Mount Scopus onto the Jerusalem Memorial. A senior Australian officer also laid a wreath of flowers. Read about the ceremony: Vigil On Mount, The Daily Telegraph, 25 April 1940.

Women sitting around a table making poppies

Australian volunteers making poppies to sell on Armistice Day, Melbourne, 5 November 1942. AWM 136990

What it means to us today

In Australia, we recognise red poppies as the flower of remembrance. Traditionally, they are:

  • worn on clothing for commemorative services
  • placed beside names on honour boards and rolls
  • woven into wreaths on special days of commemoration

Children may like to wear a home-made poppy at their next Anzac Day or Remembrance Day commemoration or to share their creative poppy art with a veteran in their community.

Engage more with this topic

Short animation and picture book

Watch our 1-minute video, which supports learning in the Here They Come big book for primary school students.

This video focuses on poppies, which are red flowers that symbolise commemoration. Poppies grew on the battlefields of Belgium and France in World War I. Many Australian soldiers died there during the war. The poppy sends a message about remembering people who have died in wars. The video is part of a series developed to support our Here They Come—A Day to Remember picture book and animated video, designed for lower primary school students. 

Inquiry-based learning activity

  1. Read the poem In Flanders Fields.
  2. Concentrate on the images that it brings to your mind. Imagine a field of poppies. What else do you see?
  3. After you have read the poem, create an artwork to illustrate what you think the poem means. You could do a collage, painting, drawing, sculpture or digital artwork.

Poppies to make

Follow these instructions to make a poppy of your own.

You'll need:

  • thin cardboard
  • red crepe paper
  • green pipe cleaner
  • black paper
  • scissors
  • pencil
  • glue

What to do:

  1. Use scissors to cut out a poppy shape (see images below) on cardboard to make a template.
  2. Place the poppy template on the red crepe paper and trace around it with a pencil.
  3. Cut out the poppy shape with scissors.
  4. To make the stalk, take a pipe cleaner and bend the end over twice at 1cm lengths (see image).
  5. Push the straight end of the pipe cleaner through the middle of the red poppy shape and continue to thread it through until the bent end sits against the middle of the poppy.
  6. Cut a small circle out of the black paper and glue it onto the centre of the poppy. The centre will secure the green pipe cleaner to the red crepe paper poppy.
  7. Bend and shape the pipe cleaner and poppy petals.

IDEAS:

An outline of a flower shape
Poppy petal template
An outline of a stem shape
Poppy stem template

Poppy poppy poems

Print and decorate the poem and give as a gift to a veteran on Anzac Day or Remembrance Day to say 'thank you for your service'. Encourage literacy learning by helping children to write their own poems to gift.

Poppy, poppy, what do you say?
Wear me on Remembrance Day.

Poppy, poppy, waht do you tell?
Many soldiers in battle fell.

Poppy, poppy, what should we know?
That peace on Earth should grow, grow, grow!

[Undated, author not known]

Learn about the Ode of Remembrance and other poems.

Poppies on a virtual tour

Do a 5-minute tiny tour around the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Find the poppies and learn about their history.


Last updated: 6 November 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Red poppies as a symbol of commemoration in Australia, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 January 2021, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/commemoration/symbols-commemoration/red-poppies
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