Armistice Day was established to commemorate the end of World War I and to honor those who died in war. After World War II the name was changed to Veteran’s Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth Nations. In the U.S. the day evolved to be a day to honor all Veterans alive or dead. In the U.S. we honor those who died in war on Memorial Day, a day established after the Civil War.
In France Armistice Day is a major holiday. My first visit to Paris many years ago was over the Armistice Day weekend. The city was quiet. Shops were closed, businesses were closed. The afternoon I went to see Napoleon’s Tomb there was a light snow falling. I was the only person there. It was kind of eerie. I had never heard of Armistice Day but later I made the connection to something much earlier in my life.
I went to a British grade school in Mexico City. We wore a uniform. It was a grey skirt, shorts or trousers for the boys, white sox, black shoes, a white shirt, a green tie (both girls and boys) and a green blazer with the crest of the school sewn on the upper left hand pocket. My brother would get into trouble because his badge kept getting ripped and he would take it off. That crest had to be on there. I learned to tie my own tie at 7 years old. Some kids wore clip-ons but most of us tied our own.
In November my first year, kids started showing up with red paper poppies pinned to the lapel of their blazers. I had never heard of Poppy Day but I loved the color added to the otherwise mundane clothing. I bought one and wore it even though I didn’t understand why. I looked forward to it every year. That splash of red.
When I was working at the British Embassy in Moscow, I saw people wearing poppies on their lapels and it took me right back to school in Mexico. I had forgotten all about those red paper poppies.
It was the 11th month, 11th day, 11th hour when hostilities ended. It was the end of the First World War, the war to end all wars. Poppies bloomed all across the fields in Flanders, Belgium where battles were fought and lives were lost. A sea of red.
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.
Lieutenant Coronel John McCrae, 1919
Writers at the time of the Napoleonic War also mentioned poppies. They bloomed on the graves of the dead soldiers. Waterloo, the site of the last battle, was in the Netherlands, right next door to Belgium. There was so much damage done to the land due to these wars, they had an increased amount of lime in the soil and poppies were one of the few plants that were able to grow in the region.
It is interesting that the tradition of wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day came from America. A woman named Moina Michael from Athens, Georgia wrote a poem in response to “In Flanders Field” called “We Shall Keep the Faith”. She vowed to wear a silk poppy year round and campaigned to have the American Legion adopt the poppy as its official symbol.
A French woman, Madame Guerin, was at a Legion convention where the poppy proposal was supported and it inspired her to raise money in France for the war’s orphans by selling silk poppies. In 1921 she expanded her campaign by selling poppies in Britain in advance of Armistice Day. A co-founder of the Royal British Legion supported her efforts and helped to promote it across the British Empire. Today it is still common to wear a silk or paper poppy around the world in remembrance of war. They even adopted the tradition in Australia where it is called ANZAC Day.
In the U.S. poppies are assembled by disabled and needy veterans in Veteran Hospitals. The poppies are given in exchange for contributions. The contributions provide financial assistance in maintaining these veterans’ rehabilitation and service facilities as well as the Veterans’ of Foreign War National Home for orphans and widows of the nation’s veterans. They aren’t as common here as they are in Britain but you can find them. Wear your poppy proudly!
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She has a BA in Spanish and has worked in publishing, printing, desktop publishing, translating, and purchasing. She also designs and creates her own needlepoint. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Over the years she has edited and produced an American Women’s Organization cookbook in Moscow, Russia, and several newsletters. Her first book, Expat Alien, was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.