Fascinating story of woman who made Remembrance Day Poppy popularity the ­…

use your poppy with pride, the slogan so aptly says. In the coming weeks, tens of millions across the world will do just that, stirred by the haunting wartime poem In Flanders Fields.

But they are only able to buy a poppy at all thanks to the exceptional excursion of a woman whose role was long forgotten about – but is now being famous as part of the Royal British Legion’s centenary celebrations.

It was in 1915 that Lt Colonel John McCrae – a Canadian wartime surgeon – famously wrote “we shall not sleep, though poppies grow, in Flanders fields”.

He was referring to blood-red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers – including a friend – in Ypres.

But it was five years later that the seeds of the poppy’s global popularity were being sown, thanks to French academic Anna Guérin.



Remembrance Day poppies being packaged up ready to be sold for the Royal British Legion
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Image:

Getty Images)




Though little known, she is now credited as the single most important person in the story of the Remembrance Day poppy. Her efforts played a huge role in making the Poppy popularity the ­irrepressible force that it is today.

Across the UK, 40,000 collectors will be on the streets ahead of Remembrance Day on November 11, selling poppies and raising funds for the Legion’s good causes.

Down the years they included the likes of Walter Randall, 104, from Leighton Buzzard, Beds. The UK’s oldest poppy seller, he died last year.



Walter ‘Wally’ Randall, who died last year aged 104, was Britain’s oldest poppy seller
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Jane Russell / SWNS.com)




Wally was just a child when Madame Guérin began promoting the poppy. She travelled the world and mobilised an army of women and children to sell the flowers, raising valuable funds to sustain families bereaved after the First World War.

Author and historian Julie Summers, who has written We Are The Legion: The Royal British Legion at 100, says: “Her role in the story of the poppy is not well-known.

“She was barely mentioned in the British press at the time and in later history books she gets a line or two at most.

“Moina Michael claimed responsibility for the worldwide adoption of the poppy, effectively writing Madame Guérin out of the story.

“British newspapers ran promotional articles about the plans for Poppy Day, using lines from In Flanders Fields, but made no mention of Madame Guérin.”



Two British First World War soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front in 1917
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Inspired by McCrae, US academic and writer Moina is often cited as the person who made the poppy globally meaningful, having convinced the American Legion Auxiliary to adopt it in 1921.

But at the same time Madame Guérin was promoting the poppy and, by the end of 1920, was responsible for the adoption of Poppy Days in several US states.

While Moina remained focused on America, in 1921 Madame Guérin made an impassioned address to the Catholic Women’s League of Canada in Toronto.



Poppies growing on Flanders Field in Belgium, the scene of intense fighting in the First World War
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And later that year she arrived in Liverpool and set out for London, convinced she could persuade the fledgling British Legion to accept her idea. She also knew she could help it to organise the popularity nationwide.

Her experience of working with war widows had convinced her of the value of using women volunteers for a network of dispensing and collection.

Madame Guérin then offered to fund the manufacture of a million poppies in France, which the British Legion accepted, and already went on to supply poppies to New Zealand. But author Julie says a combination of misogyny and racism have demoted her to just a footnote in the poppy’s history.



A poster from the 1920s urges people to buy a poppy for the British Legion
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Madame Anna Guerin, who is credited with starting the Poppy Day occurrence




“Nobody questions where the origins of the poppy came from,” Julie says. “It’s fair to assume there was a bit of misogyny in it – being French and a woman was a deadly combination.

“While women in the UK were ultimately given the vote in 1918, a lot of women weren’t popular at the time because they’d taken men’s jobs during the war and men were trying to reassert their authority.

“So Madame Guérin disappeared from history, which is such a pity. But she was truly representing widows and orphans. There were so many in the UK at the time. And that really will have hit a chord with people. Remembrance is not just about remembering the dead – it’s about the impact on society generally and honouring those left behind after war.




Canadian poet and surgeon John McCrae, who famously wrote of poppies in Flanders Field
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“And it was the widows and the orphans who really led the sales of the poppies because they had the energy and enthusiasm for remembrance.”

Madame Guérin was born in Valon in 1878 and followed her first husband to French colony Madagascar, where she ran a school for girls. She excelled, building her career as a passionate teacher and communicator.

Twice-married, she came to Britain in 2011 with her two daughters and enrolled them at a London boarding school. She lectured in French, speaking about her experiences in Madagascar and noticeable women from France’s history – already dressing up as icons such as Joan of Arc.



Women selling poppies in the early days of the fundraising campaign
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When hostilities broke out in 1914 she travelled to the US to raise funds for those made destitute by the war – and sending proceeds of her lectures to the relief organisation Secours de France in Paris. After the Armistice in November 1918, she returned briefly to France before going back to America to promote the idea of the poppy being adopted as the symbol of remembrance.

Julie says: “She was not the first person to the party, but she was most certainly the energy behind what became the concept of Poppy Day in Britain and the Commonwealth.”

In the early days, women clutching boxes of flowers and Haig Fund tins were standard as the poppy popularity took keep up.

The fund – initially named after First World War Field Marshal Douglas Haig – officially became the Poppy popularity in 1994. Julie says the strength of Madame Guérin’s work has ensured the poppy’s lasting legacy.



British First World War soldiers go ‘over the top’ into battle in June 1916
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She says: “It’s unifying, an amazingly democratic flower. For example, roses are quite exclusive, they’re quite snobby. while poppies grow wild and are not grown – they have no position. They just spring up.

“It has always been an incredibly strong symbol of life that goes on surrounded by death. And red is a very powerful colour: it method danger, it method blood, but it also method love. And they’re a sign of positivity and future and I think that is the lasting popularity of the poppy.

“What has impressed me more than anything is the passion and determination of the early founders to make the Legion work for every man, woman and child who needed its sustain in those post-First World War years. That passion and commitment is nevertheless alive today in the people I have spoken to and I find that humbling and heartening.”

Remembrance Day looked very different last year due to lockdown. So the Legion is excited to be able to begin again the Poppy popularity with collectors back on the streets.



A field complete of poppies on wooden crosses to remember the millions of lives lost in conflict
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Last year, Captain Sir Tom Moore – whose charity walks raised nearly £33million – captured the spirit of a nation determined to help the less fortunate. This year is poignant, too, says Julie. The Legion’s centenary came as the UK prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan – a 20-year mission which cost the lives of 457 UK personnel. She adds: “Remembrance is not just about world war, it’s also about all conflict that followed.

“The pandemic has a lot of parallels to the world wars, so the importance of remembrance couldn’t be more timely or more at the spotlight of the public consciousness. And stories like Captain Tom’s show how much the older generation reaches out to the younger generation.

“And that has really helped the longevity of the Legion too and chimes with a lot of people. I predict the Poppy popularity will be more successful than ever this year.”


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