Remembrance Day

Red poppies

The Flanders poppy has been a part of Armistice or Remembrance Day ritual since the early 1920s and is also increasingly being used as part of ANZAC Day observances. During the First World War, the red poppies were seen to be among the first living plants that sprouted from the devastation of the battlefields of northern France and Belgium. Soldiers' folklore had it that the poppies were vivid red from having been nurtured in ground drenched with the blood of their comrades. The sight of the poppies on the battlefield at Ypres in 1915 moved Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae to write the poem In Flanders Fields (see The recitation for more information). Flanders poppies also featured prominently in several other literary responses to the carnage of the Western Front. In English literature of the nineteenth century poppies had symbolised sleep or a state of oblivion; this symbolism was carried into the literature of the First World War, but a new, more powerful symbolism was now attached to the poppy - that of the sacrifice of shed blood.

An American, Moina Michael, read McCrae's poem and was so moved by it that she wrote a reply and decided to wear a red poppy as a way of keeping faith, as McCrae urged in his poem. Michael worked for the American YMCA and at a meeting of YMCA secretaries from other countries, held in November 1918, she discussed the poem and her poppies. Madame Guerin, the French YMCA secretary, was similarly inspired and she approached organisations throughout the allied nations to sell poppies to raise money for widows, orphans and needy veterans and their families.

The poppy soon became widely accepted throughout the allied nations as the flower of remembrance to be worn on Armistice Day. The Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League (the forerunner to the RSL) first sold poppies for Armistice Day 1921. For this drive, the league imported one million silk poppies, made in French orphanages. Each poppy was sold for a shilling: five pence was donated to a charity for French children, six pence went to the league's own welfare work and one penny went to the league's national coffers. Today, the RSL sells poppies for Remembrance Day to raise funds for welfare work, although they have long since ceased to import them from France.

            Roll of Honour wall.

The poppy has also become very popular in wreaths used on ANZAC Day. An early use of the poppy on ANZAC Day was in 1940 in Palestine, where it grows in profusion in the spring. At the Dawn Service each soldier dropped a poppy as he filed past the Stone of Remembrance. A senior Australian officer also a laid a wreath of poppies that had been picked from the hillside of Mt Scopus.

Now each year, poppies adorn the panels of the Memorial's Roll of Honour, pushed in beside names as a small personal tribute to the memory of any one of the thousands of individuals commemorated there. This practice originates from a spontaneous gesture made by people waiting to pay their respects at the funeral of the Unknown Australian Soldier on 11 November 1993. After the main service the public were invited to file through the Hall of Memory and lay a single flower by his tomb. To do this they had to queue along the cloisters, beside the Roll of Honour, and at the end of the day hundreds of RSL poppies were found to have been pushed into the cracks between the panels.