Poppy and cornflower, flowers of remembrance  

Poppies and cornflowers have become the symbols of the 1914-1918 war. In the Commonwealth, poppies stand for soldiers who died at war. This association goes back a long time. During the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, the link between poppies and battlefields had already been made…But how do the fields destroyed by the fighting get carpeted by those blood red flowers?


The poppy seed is not very demanding, it only needs a calcareous and ploughed soil. Long lasting, it can remain buried for years with no water and keep its germinating power, sprouting as soon as it is brought to the bare surface by tilling of the soil. No surprise it bloomed on the devastated battlefields of WW1…


Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and surgeon, first noticed the relationship between poppies and battlefields. When a friend of his was killed by a German shell in Ypres and buried in a rudimentary grave topped with a simple wood cross, he was struck by the wild poppies sprouting between the rows of graves. This phenomenon was immortalized in his famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, published on December 8, 1915.

Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and surgeon, first noticed the relationship between poppies and battlefields. When a friend of his was killed by a German shell in Ypres and buried in a rudimentary grave topped with a simple wood cross, he was struck by the wild poppies sprouting between the rows of graves. This phenomenon was immortalized in his famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, published on December 8, 1915.

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row”


Three years later, while on duty in the YMCA canteen of New York, Moina Michael began to wear red poppies in the memory of millions of soldiers who gave their lives on the battlefields. While visiting the USA in 1920, a French lady named Madame Guérin discovered this custom and decided, back in France, that hand-made poppies could be sold as a way of raising money for the needy children in the devastated regions of the country.

 

 

In November 1921, the first artificial poppies were distributed in Canada. Since then, the Poppy became the emblem of Sacrifice and Remembrance of the First World War. Armistice Day, or 11th of November is also known as Poppy Day.

Because of its colour reminding the uniforms of the “Poilus”, the cornflower, also present on the battlefields, symbolises in France the sacrifice of soldiers during WW1. Actually, this flower was adopted as symbol by the French Poilus themselves. In 1915, whereas the veterans still carried the red madder pants, the younger recruits were dressed in the new blue French uniform. They were called the "Bleuets” (French for cornflower, but also newbie).

2 pages from Renefer's "Carnet de Poilu" (Albin Michel eds.)
2 pages from Renefer's "Carnet de Poilu" (Albin Michel eds.)

But just like the British Poppy, the Cornflower only became a Remembrance flower after the war. Suzanne Lenhardt, nurse at the military hospital of the “Invalides” and widow of a Captain of the Colonial Infantry killed in 1915, and Charlotte Malleterre, daughter of General Léon Niox and spouse of General Gabriel Malleterre, both touched by the sufferings of the maimed they took care of, understood the necessity to help them play an active role in Society…

 

They decided to organise workshops where maimed soldiers manufactured cornflowers with petals made out of fabric and stamens out of newsprint. Those flowers were sold on many occasions, and the income of this activity gave the men some autonomy. Cornflower became the symbol of reintegration through work.

 

Although this tradition is slowly fading since the sixties, the French Cornflower is still sold during the commemorations of May 8 and November 11, by the volunteers of “L’Oeuvre Nationale du Bleuet de France”, a charity organisation supervised by the “Office national des anciens combattants et victimes de guerre”. Its main goal is still to collect money to finance social charity to support not only former servicemen and widows of war, but also soldiers wounded during peacekeeping operations and victims of terrorism.


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