Roamer: Poem on page turned poppy into history’s greatest ever symbol of remembrance

The Poppy Lady, Belle Michael
The Poppy Lady, Belle Michael

This morning in 1918, almost exactly 48 hours before Armistice was declared at 11 am. on November 11, a young American soldier left a magazine on a desk in Columbia University, New York.

He’d marked a page, highlighting a poem.

An American teacher (who’d been co-opted as a secretary of the Y.M.C.A) sat down at the desk, opened the magazine, and perused the poem.

During the day a further series of inadvertent links were added to this seemingly unexceptional chain of events which ultimately led to the red poppy being adopted as the world-wide symbol of Remembrance.

“You might be able to use this in some way,” wrote Sam Trotter B.E.M, author of Constabulary Heroes, in a note to Roamer that detailed the amazing story behind the Remembrance Day poppy.

Former teacher and academic, 49-year-old Miss Moina Belle Michael, was secretary of the Y.M.C.A Overseas War Workers training headquarters at Columbia University when she opened the November 1918 edition of the Ladies Home Journal, left on her desk by the soldier.

“At about 10.30 o’clock, when everyone was on duty elsewhere,” Miss Michael recounted in her fascinating autobiography, “I found time to read it and discovered the marked page which carried Colonel John McCrae’s poem ‘We Shall Not Sleep’, later named ‘In Flanders Fields’. It was vividly ‘picturized’ and most strikingly illustrated.”

Moina described how the idea for the memorial red poppy came to her in that moment of revelation.

Her autobiography entitled The Miracle Flower, published in 1941, is dedicated to Canadian army doctor and poet Colonel McCrae.

In it she recounts the 25th Conference of the Overseas Y.M.C.A. in Columbia University, where she worked in a communal room used by soldiers and sailors bound for WWI.

“I read the poem…the last verse transfixed me - ‘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 seemed as though “the silent voices again were vocal,” recounted Moina “whispering in sighs of anxiety unto anguish.”

She silently pledged “to keep the faith and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of ‘keeping the faith with all who died’”

She made a note on a piece of paper “we shall keep the faith” which she extended into a poem.

Moina often bought flowers to decorate the rather gloomy room that the Y.M.C.A used in the University, and as she finished her note three men, delegates from the Y.M.C.A. conference, came to her desk with a donation for flowers.

“I had furnished the flowers before that time from my own purse,” Moina wrote in her autobiography, “so it was a pleasant surprise to find this appreciation.”

She told the men she would buy 25 red poppies.

“I shall always wear red poppies,” she explained “poppies of Flanders Fields! Do you know why?”

She showed the men Colonel McCrae’s illustrated poem in the magazine, which they took into their Y.M.C.A meeting.

After the meeting adjourned a larger delegation confronted Moina “asking for red poppies to wear…in memory of all who died in Flanders Fields.”

She had none “but I promised I would get them that afternoon down in the city.”

Having searched unsuccessfully in a number of New York’s

“novelty shops which featured artificial flowers…I found a large red poppy…and two dozen small, silk, red poppies.”

A Jewish girl behind the counter asked why she particularly wanted poppies.

Moina explained and the shop assistant was “quite sympathetic, for her brother was then sleeping among the poppies behind the battle lines of France in a few-months-old soldier’s grave. This personal contact with such a personal reaction further convinced me that this choice of a remembrance emblem for those sleeping in Flanders Fields was no accident.”

Moina returned to the Y.M.C.A conference in the University where delegates “came crowding for poppies to wear. I had pinned one on my cloak collar, and gave out the others until the last of the 25 red poppies was pinned on a lapel of a (soldier) who would soon be on his way to France to do his bit. I wore my poppy until I reached home in February, when I made some fresh ones.”

She threw her efforts into campaigning to get the poppy adopted as a national remembrance symbol.

Two years later, the National American Legion’s conference proclaimed the poppy as such. Among those at the conference was Madame Anna Guérin from France who instigated poppy-selling to raise money for children in the war-ravaged areas of her country.

Having organised the sale of millions of poppies made by French widows in the United States, Madame Guérin dispatched her poppy sellers to London in 1921.

Field Marshall Douglas Haig, founder of the Royal British Legion, adopted the idea along with veterans’ groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

So that autumn the newly-established Legion sold its first remembrance poppies, the beginning of a long tradition.

Moina Michael devoted her life’s work to the poppy project and became known as ‘The Poppy Lady’.

She died aged 74 on May 10, 1944.