Anzac poppy

Anzac poppy

The red poppy has become a symbol of war remembrance the world over. People in many countries wear the poppy to remember those who died in war or who still serve in the armed forces. In many countries, the poppy is worn around Armistice Day (11 November), but in New Zealand it is most commonly seen around Anzac Day, 25 April.

In Flanders fields

The red or Flanders poppy has been linked with battlefield deaths since the Great War (1914–18). The plant was one of the first to grow and bloom on battlefields in the Belgian region of Flanders. The connection was made, most famously, by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae in his poem, 'In Flanders 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 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.

McCrae was a Canadian medical officer who, in May 1915, conducted the funeral service of a friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres (Ieper). Distressed at the death and suffering around him, McCrae scribbled the verses in his notebook. In a cemetery nearby, red poppies blew gently in the breeze – a symbol of regeneration and growth in a landscape of blood and destruction.

Legend has it that McCrae threw away the poem, but a fellow officer rescued it and persuaded McCrae to send it to the English magazine Punch; 'In Flanders fields' was published on 8 December 1915. Little more than two years later, on 28 January 1918, McCrae died of cerebral meningitis. As he lay dying, he is reported to have said, ‘Tell them this, if ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep.’

Keeping the faith

Many people were moved by the pathos of 'In Flanders fields'. Among them was Moina Michael (1869–1944), who worked in a YMCA canteen in New York. Two days before the signing of the Armistice (11 November 1918), she wrote a reply to McCrae: 'We shall keep the faith'.

Michael set out to have the red poppy adopted in the United States as a national symbol of remembrance. The American Legion adopted it at its annual convention in September 1920. Attending that event was Madame E. Guérin who, along with Michael, was responsible for making the poppy an international symbol of remembrance. Both were known at the time as ‘The Poppy Lady’.

Guérin saw the potential to make and sell poppies, using the proceeds to assist veterans, their families and poor children. Over the next year Guérin and others approached veterans’ groups in many countries, urging them to adopt the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.

The first Poppy Day

New Zealand was one of these countries. One of Guérin’s representatives, Colonel Alfred Moffatt, suggested the idea to the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association (as the Returned Services' Association or RSA was then known) in September 1921. The RSA placed an order for 350,000 small and 16,000 large silk poppies, all to be made by Madame Guérin’s French Children’s League.

The RSA planned to hold its first Poppy Day appeal just before Armistice Day 1921, as other countries were doing. When the ship carrying the poppies from France arrived too late for the scheme to be properly publicised, the association decided to wait until Anzac Day 1922.

The poppies went on sale the day before Anzac Day. This first Poppy Day appeal was a huge success. Many centres sold out early in the day. In all, 245,059 small and 15,157 large poppies were sold. Of the £13,166 (equivalent to more than $1.3 million in 2019) raised, £3695 ($372,000) went to the French Children’s League to help relieve suffering in war-ravaged northern France. The association used the balance to assist needy, unemployed returned soldiers and their families; that tradition has continued.

The popularity of Poppy Day quickly grew. There were record collections during the Second World War. In 1945, 750,000 poppies were distributed nationwide – nearly half the population sported the familiar red symbol of remembrance.

Making poppies

New Zealand’s supply of red poppies has been sourced both overseas and locally. The association began producing its own poppies in 1931, with disabled former servicemen in Auckland and Christchurch making them. The Christchurch RSA is still responsible for the manufacture of poppies, which are now made of paper rather than cloth. 

Rationing and restrictions during the Second World War affected the making of poppies. The government actually relaxed its restriction on the importation of cloth from Britain so that poppies could be made. By this time, ladies’ committees (women’s sections) of the RSA were playing a key role in the making (and sale) of poppies. In 1936, a Wellington ladies’ committee made 20,000 poppies for Poppy Day.

Wearing poppies

In New Zealand the poppy is worn most often around Anzac Day. Since 1927 Poppy Day has been the Friday before Anzac Day (unless this is Good Friday), with the appeal continuing until 25 April. Poppies still symbolise remembrance, and New Zealanders want to show this at other times as well as on Anzac Day. The red poppy can be seen at major commemorative events, at military funerals and at war graves and cemeteries in New Zealand and around the world. In 2020, Poppy Day was cancelled for the first time since its inception because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

How to cite this page

'The red poppy', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/anzac-day/poppies, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 16-Apr-2020