The Poppy Story

The Poppy Story, by Laura B. Mercer, Girls State 1982

For more than 70 years, red poppies have been worn proudly by Americans to commemorate Memorial Day. I would like to tell you the significance of this flower. From 1914 to 1918, the Battlefields of Europe were trampled by the boots of millions of fighting men. From 1917 to 1918, American troops were part of the Allied Forces, which fought to bring peace to Europe. In Flanders, the only touch of life and beauty they often saw was the wild poppies that bloomed amid the rubble of war. Along the trenches, around the shell craters, and among the barbed wire and wreckage, the little poppies grew and bloomed. The tiny blossoms also covered the graves of American fighting men who had fallen on the battlefield; they soon became a symbol of sacrifice to the living and dead. Mrs. Mercer's, two brothers were World War I casualties, one was killed in France and the other one was lost at sea on the USS Cyclops and was never heard of. Blake Brothers, American Legion Post 46, at Benwood, WV, was named for them. The Poppy, as the memorial flower for American war dead, is a tradition, which began in the years following the First World War. Veterans returning to their homes in this country remembered the wild poppies, which lined the devastated battlefields of France and Flanders and the soldiers of all nations came to look upon the flower as a living symbol of their dead comrade’s sacrifices. We, in this country, wear the Poppy to signify the feeling of reverence in our hearts for the servicemen and women who died for American during World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Grenada/Lebanon War, Panama Conflict Persian Gulf War, Iraq War, Afghanistan War. The Poppy is their flower. However, in addition to serving as a memorial to the war dead, the Poppy helps lighten the burden carried by veterans who returned disabled in mind and body. Making Poppies gives employment to those who otherwise would not be able to earn support for themselves and their families. What form of aid could be more effective than helping veterans aid themselves with productive work? The Veterans are paid for the work they do regardless of any government compensation and the job itself is a relief from long hours spent in a hospital ward with nothing to do. This occupational therapy breaks the monotonous routine of the hospital and gives them a new lease on life. As each Poppy leaves the hands of a disabled person, it contributes monetary assistance for necessities and comforts not supplied by the hospitals and a small amount of savings for the veteran towards the day he can leave the hospital, as well as financial assistance for his dependents. Veterans invariably ask the American Legion Auxiliary for permission to make more and more Poppies, not only for the money, but because the program offers them the opportunities to do something productive. In our Department of West Virginia, all supplies for making Poppies are furnished by the American Legion Auxiliary and each poppy is made by Veterans, for which they are paid .05 cents for each Poppy made. The entire proceeds from the sale of the poppies are used solely for relief and welfare of Veterans within the local communities, thus aiding those Veterans at home who are in need. Veterans who rely upon Poppy-making for earning money to support their families are to be found in virtually every State in the Nation. Nationally, about 30,000 families are helped by the sale of Poppies each year. A Canadian officer, Col. John McCree, who was killed during World War I, immortalized the Poppy by his famous poem, “Flanders Field,” which I quote:

“In Flanders Field 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.”

"Rest ye in peace, ye Flanders’ dead The fight that you so bravely led We’ve taken up. And we will keep True faith with you who lie asleep With each a cross to mark his bed, And Poppies blowing overhead, When once his own life-blood ran red, So let your rest be sweet and deep In Flanders Fields. Fear not that ye have died for naught; The Torch ye threw to us we caught, Ten millions hands will hold it high, And Freedom’s light shall never die! We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught In Flanders Fields.”

The American Legion Auxiliary has taken up the torch. When you see a Veteran-made Poppy and are asked to wear one, remember the many, many Veterans who gave their lives for this country and the Veterans in the hospitals who are making this memorial flower. Each Poppy tells its own story, as no two are fashioned alike. Each wearer of the Poppy tells a story of memorial tribute and aid to someone who needs that helping hand of understanding. A simple flower, ‘tis true, But more, A symbol of that sacrifice, which made and kept us free, and so, lest memory dim with time, we wear, a Poppy for remembrance! Some day, in the future, you may be asked to help with this program. I hope you will do it proudly in remembrance of the Veterans who gave their all so you and I can enjoy a free life and continue to participate in this Girls State program, made possible by the American Legion Auxiliary.