How did the Poppie appeal begin and what is the story behind it?

Graham Charles Lear
10 min readNov 6, 2018

There were many World War 1 poets like Wilfred Owen above. However, this one poem by John McCrae started the ball rolling and set the foundation for Poppie Day

John McCrae, May 1915

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.

And so the first idea of a Poppie flower to remember the thousands of dead and injured British and Commonwealth soldiers airmen and sailors were born. Not that John McCrae, knew that it would be used.

John McCrae. He had been asked to conduct the burial service of his fellow Canadian and friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer who on the morning of Sunday 2 May had walked out of his dugout at Ypres and had been instantly killed by a shell dropping just a few yards from him.

Not much was left of Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, however, what could be found of him would be collected in an empty sandbag then laid out on an Army blanket to be buried that evening.

Near to the 1st Canadian Brigade’s position on the canal bank, there was a small burial ground which had originally been established by the French Army in the autumn of 1914, the previous year, during the First Battle of Ypres. Several months later the Second Battle of Ypres began on 22 April 1915. By early May 1915, the burial ground contained the graves of French and Canadian Army casualties. It became known as Essex Farm British Military Cemetery, after the farm in the vicinity named as Essex Farm on British military maps. It was here that Major John McCrae, a doctor conducted the service of burial for his friend.

No one knows for sure why he chose those words or even why he chose the Poppy flower. He was seen writing sitting on the step of an ambulance as he gazed at his friends grave. There were Poppy flowers in flower around the graves of the fallen soldiers so it’s not hard to imagine that he would be inspired to use the Poppy as part of his poem. We do know he was deeply affected by the loss of his friend.

What we also know is the fact that over the next three years Lieutenant Alexis Helmers grave would be lost he would become one of the thousands of men who would not have the last resting place that is afforded to us all. His name though is on the Memorial Gate at Memin a tribute to the 54,896 soldiers who have no known grave in the battlefields of the Ypres Salient.

John McCrae decided to send his poem to the Spectator magazine who declined to publish it. However, in December 1915 Punch magazine published it with a slight alteration. McCrae had written the word grow Punch changed it to blow, McCrae though continued to use the word grow in many handwritten versions and also in printed versions.

John McCrae himself never made it back to Canada, he died on January 28, 1918, from pneumonia The following day he was buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of Wimereux Cemetery.

On the night he died he was taken to a large window overlooking the English Channel so that he could look over the sea to the White Cliffs of Dover.

He told the doctor who was in charge of his case:

“Tell them this,
If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep”.

On the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month 1918, the guns fell silent and the war was over.

It left the whole of Europe devastated none more so than the United Kingdom which saw the cream of its men go to war and die 700,000 men died in just four years many in the most appalling conditions, many thousands of men were never found.

As the United Kingdom slowly began getting back to normal a lady living in American, Miss Moina who had read his poem penned a reply to the poem


Oh! You who sleep in Flanders’ fields,
Sleep sweet — to arise anew;
We caught the torch you threw,
And holding high we kept
The faith with those who died.

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,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders’ fields.

And now the torch and poppy red
Wear in honour of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for nought:
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders’ fields.

Miss Michael who on November 9th 1918, only two days before the Armistice was signed was presented with a small gift of money by some of the overseas War Secretaries of the YMCA. She decided to tell them about the two poems the one the good doctor had written and the one she had written and she told them that she was going to buy 25 red poppies with the money.

She went out and indeed bought those 25 red poppies. She decided to wear one herself and then gave one to each member of the War Secretaries of the YMCA. This it is claimed was the first group that wore the Red Poppies to remember the war dead.

Back in Europe though a French lady Madame Guerin had a practical and useful idea. She had begun to visit various parts of the world to suggest that artificial poppies should be made and sold to help ex-Servicemen and their dependents in need.

As a result of Madame Guerin idea, the first Poppie appeal was held in Britain on November 11th 1921. Those Poppies came from a French organisation who raised money for children in the worse devastated areas of the war.

Field Marshall Haig (who had been Commander-in-Chief in France) had become the Founder-President of the newly formed British Legion (“The Royal” prefix was not conferred until 1971). The Legion’s purpose was then — as it remains today — in time of need to give practical help to all men and women who have served in the Forces, and to their widows and dependants.

Haig used to say that the provision of work for disabled ex-Servicemen was as important as raising money. He always took the greatest personal interest in the Legion’s Poppy Factory. This Factory started its activities in 1922 with five disabled ex-Servicemen working in a room over a shop in Bermondsey in South London.

Today, The Royal British Legion Poppy Factory Ltd carries on the same work in modern premises in Richmond, Surrey, where 50 disabled ex-Servicemen are employed all year round in the manufacture of the 27 million Poppies, 113,000 Wreaths and 800,000 Remembrance Crosses for the 2010 Appeal.

The first Poppy Appeal in 1921 raided £106,000. By 1978 the Appeal had reached over £3.5 million annually, and in 2017 it raised £44.527 Million.

This all goes to help any serviceman and woman who needs help.

I saw a boy marching, with medals on his chest, He marched alongside Soldiers, marching six abreast, He knew it was Remembrance Day, he walked along with pride And did his best to keep in step with the soldiers by his side.

And when the march was over, the boy looked rather tired; A soldier said. “Whose medals son?” to which the boy replied, “They belong to my Dad, but he didn’t come back. He died out in Afghanistan, upon a Helmand track”

The boy looked rather sad, and a tear came to his eye; But the soldier said, “Don’t worry son, I’ll tell you why,” He said, “Your dad marched with us today, all the blooming way, All us soldiers knew he was here, it’s like that on Remembrance Day.”

The boy looked rather puzzled he didn’t understand But the soldier went on talking and started to wave his hand, “For this great land we live in, there’s a price we have to pay, To keep our Country free, and fly our flag today

Yes, we all love fun and merriment in this country where we live, But the price was that some soldier his precious life must give; For you to go to school, my son, and worship God at will Somebody had to pay the price, so our soldiers paid the bill.

“Your dad died for us my son, for all things good and true, And I hope you can understand these words I’ve said to you”. The boy looked up at the soldier and after a little while, His face changed expression, and he said with a beautiful smile,

“I know my dad marched here today, this our Remembrance Day, I know he did, I know he did, all the blooming way”

Lest we forget

Marching Men, by Marjorie Pickthall

Under the level winter sky
I saw a thousand Christs go by.
They sang an idle song and free
As they went up to calvary.

Careless of eye and coarse of lip,
They marched in holiest fellowship.
That heaven might heal the world, they gave
Their earth-born dreams to deck the grave.

With souls unpurged and steadfast breath
They supped the sacrament of death.
And for each one, far off, apart,
Seven swords have rent a woman’s heart.

The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

A Dead Boche, by Robert Graves

To you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say** (you’ve heard it said before)
”War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for the lust of blood:
Where propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard

My Boy Jack, by Rudyard Kipling

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has anyone else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

This last one is more modern.

James Love fought in the Falklands and it reminds us all that that while we all sleep and lead normal lives back home soldiers at war endure hardships' hard to imagine.

May ‘82

May ‘82
It rained
and I heard it fall.
Maybe not every drop,
but almost all.

We cut the turf.
And stacked it high.
Two foot thick
and just as wide.

Rain ran down my face
while it filled the hole.
Soaked my clothes.
washed my soul.

No gentle pitter-patter this,
it crashed.
The wind howled and blew.
Bayonets slashed.

And all the while,
Eight thousand miles away,
you cheered, got drunk, and slept,
in a cosy warm bed.

Lest we ever forget.



Graham Charles Lear

What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.