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British Culture, British Customs and British Traditions

Poppy Day


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This section is in advanced English and is only intended to be a guide, not to be taken too seriously!

The 11th hour of the 11th Day of the 11th month

Remembrance Day is also known as Poppy Day, and in America it is called Veteran's day. It was first observed in 1919, however until 1945 it was called Armistice Day. Traditionally there is two minutes of silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month because that was the time (in Britain) when the armistice became effective in 1918.

Today, in the UK Remembrance Sunday is also observed on the Sunday nearest to November 11th. So, in the United Kingdom, two minutes' silence is observed on November 11 itself, and on the second Sunday of November. Remembrance Sunday, ceremonies are held at War Memorials, all over the UK and over the years it has become a day to commemorate not just the sacrifice of servicemen and women but the suffering of civilians in times of war.

Remembrance Sunday is commemorated by church services around the UK and a parade of ex-service personnel in London’s Whitehall. Wreaths of poppies are placed on war memorials from the Cenotaph, a war memorial in Whitehall, to the tiniest war memorials in villages all over Britain. Small wooden crosses are placed in Gardens of Remembrance as private acts of remembering individual losses and suffering and people pin poppies to their coat or jacket.

History states that it was the poem 'In Flanders Fields' written in 1915 by Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian Medical Officer, that captured the imagination of the British people in the dark days of trench warfare on the Western Front when so many young soldiers failed to return. Six months before the Armistice, McCrae was brought on a stretcher to a big hospital on the French coast and saw the cliffs of Dover from his room. He died that night and was buried in a cemetery above Wimereux. Before he died, he said to the doctor: "Tell them this . . . If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep." An American woman, Miss Moina Michael, wrote a moving poem in reply and bought 25 red poppies, wearing one herself as a way to keep faith with the war dead; a French woman, Madame Guerin, came up with the practical idea of making and selling artificial poppies to help ex-service men and their dependents in need.

Britain's first Poppy Day was held in 1921 and the money raised helped children in war-devastated areas. The Royal British Legion opened its own poppy factory in London in 1922 to give practical help in time of need to all who have served in the armed forces and their widows and dependents. The paper poppies that are worn today are made by ex-service personnel and are sold by representatives of the Royal British Legion, an organisation of ex-servicemen and women. Today, they make more than 35 million poppies and 65,000 wreaths for the annual poppy appeal.

The poppy, one of the most ancient of plants, was selected originally as the emblem of consolation, denoting sleep, rest and repose. In Roman mythology, Morpheus, the god of dreams, fashioned crowns of poppies to give to those he wanted to send to sleep. The ancient Egyptians used the poppy in burial ceremonies as part of the gifts and utensils considered essential to ensure life after death. Well preserved poppies have been found in tombs dating from the time of the Pharaohs, over 3000 years ago. But most importantly the poppy tends to grow where ground has been disturbed. They grew in great abundance in the shell-torn fields of Flanders during the War. Because of its abundance it became the symbol of remembrance of two world wars.

In Flander's Fields

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

Take up your 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.

(written by Liet.-Col. John McCrae, a Canadian serving at Ypres)

More Poems
Pictures of Poppy Day.
You can learn more about the poppy appeal here.
British Culture