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.
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.
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:
- Remembrance Day in Australia and other Commonwealth countries
- Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand
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.
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.
Where to buy poppies
You can buy Anzac Day poppies and Remembrance Day poppies in many places across Australia and online. Proceeds from the sales of RSL Australia poppies support Australian veterans and their families. See if your local RSL branch website sells them online. Look for RSL poppy sellers in your local shopping centre. Check for RSL poppies in major supermarkets and stationery supplies stores.
You can also buy from the Australian War Memorial Shop.
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.
Inquiry-based learning activity
- Read the poem In Flanders Fields.
- Concentrate on the images that it brings to your mind. Imagine a field of poppies. What else do you see?
- 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
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, what 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.