the story of poppy day: moina belle michael

Author: Ann Moore
Formerly SHP Fellow
The First World War armistice came into effect at 11am on 11 November 1918, the 'eleventh hour
of the eleventh day of the eleventh month'. Although Armistice marked the end of fighting on the
Western Front, formal negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference continued into 1919. The Allies'
formal peace treaty with Germany, the Treaty of Versailles, was not officially signed until 28 June.
A Peace Committee was set up to consider how Britain would mark the end of war and a day of
celebration was planned for July 19th 1919. However, many people opposed the idea of celebrating
a war, so whilst this day of festivities went ahead, all further remembrance events were to be much
more solemn.
In 1916, David Railton a Church of England clergyman serving at the Western Front in World War I
spotted an inscription on an anonymous war grave in a back garden at Armentieres in France. The
grave was a simple cross upon which was pencilled the words "An Unknown British Soldier". Revd
Railton carried this memory with him throughout the rest of the war and in August 1920 he wrote
to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, to suggest having a nationally recognised grave for an
unknown soldier. The idea soon caught on and on 7th November 1920, four bodies were exhumed
from the battle areas of the Somme, Arras, Ypres and the Aisne. Their remains were laid on
stretchers and covered by union jacks after which General Wyatt whose duty it was to select the
body was allegedly blindfolded, before choosing one of the bodies. The body was placed in a coffin
and taken by British soldiers to England with the inscription
"A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country"
‘On the morning of 11 November 1920 - two years to
the day after the war had ended, the body of the
unknown warrior was drawn in a procession through
London to the newly built Cenotaph that had been
designed by the famous architect Lutyens. This new
war memorial on Whitehall was then unveiled by
George V.
At 1100 there was a two-minute silence, and the
body was then taken to nearby Westminster
Abbey where it was buried, passing through a
guard of honour of 100 holders of the Victoria
Cross.’ (BBC News 2010)
Author: Ann Moore
Formerly SHP Fellow
On May 2nd 1915, a Canadian soldier Alexis Helmer, serving in Flanders, in Belgium was killed by an
exploding shell at the second battle of Ypres. He was buried by his friend and colleague, John
McRae who was the brigade’s military doctor. The devastation
of the site had churned up the mud to such an extent, that poppy
seeds which had lain dormant, were exposed to the sun once
again and began to grow. John McCrae noticed that this
phenomenon also happened around the newly dug graves of
many of the soldiers and in memory of his friend Alexis, wrote
what is probably the most famous poem of the First World War.
Eye witnesses said that it took him only twenty minutes to write
the poem below.
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.
It is said that John was dissatisfied with the poem, so screwed it up and threw it away. A fellow
soldier rescued it and John, after several months of deliberations sent it to the magazine Punch,
which published it anonymously on December 8th 1915. The poem became famous during the war
and was published in many different newspapers and magazines. Meanwhile John was promoted
to the acting rank of Colonel. On January 13 1918, he was named Consulting Physician to the
British Armies in France. Sadly he contracted pneumonia on that same day, and later came down
with cerebral meningitis. He died on January 28, 1918.
Author: Ann Moore
Formerly SHP Fellow
Ten months later on November 9th 1918 only two days before the official armistice, a 49 year old
teacher called Moina Belle Michael, was working in the Reading
Rooms of the New York Headquarters of the YMCA. The annual
conference of YMCA War Secretaries was going on at the same
time. By chance, Moina began to read John McCrae’s poem which
had been published in the ‘Ladies Home Journal’. It affected her
so deeply that she did two things straight away. Firstly she went
shopping and bought 25 or so red satin poppies which she handed
out to conference delegates. Secondly she wrote the following
poem as a response to McCrae’s by now famous poem.
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
Moina also resolved to wear a poppy every day in memory of the War Dead, and began a campaign
to create the Flanders field poppy as an international sign of remembrance
Within three years, she had successfully persuaded organisations in the USA, France, Canada,
Australia and New Zealand to adopt the emblem. In the autumn of 1921, Field Marshal Douglas
Haig lent his weight to the campaign, and the emblem was adopted by the British Legion in time for
the November 1921 commemorations in Whitehall.
Author: Ann Moore
Formerly SHP Fellow
Field Marshal Douglas Haig is one of Britain’s best
known Generals and was Commander in Chief
during the First World War. His championing of
poppy day and the establishment of the ‘Earl Haig
Fund’ to assist ex service men, was perhaps a
personal acknowledgement of the death and
destruction that trench warfare brought,
particularly at the Battle of the Somme? Earl Haig
threw his weight behind Moina Belle Michael’s
campaign, and suggested that making artificial
poppies could be something that unemployed and
disabled ex servicemen could do.
The image on the next page is from the front cover
of a small leaflet that was produced for the 1921
Remembrance Day Service and was owned by the wife of Second Lieutenant Leonard Brown who
died serving with the East Surrey Regiment in Flanders in 1918; after nearly four years on the
Western Front, having been commissioned from the ranks.
Author: Ann Moore
Formerly SHP Fellow
BBC History
BBC News
London Museum
Melbourne Museum Australia