The colour of remembrance

Red poppies were everywhere in the U.K. in the run-up to the centenary of Armistice Day on November 11. Remembrance Day is commemorated every year to mark the armistice signed between the Allies and Germany on the ‘eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’ of 1918, effectively bringing an end to World War I.

The poppy is indisputably the most famous of WWI’s symbols. Each year, millions of commemorative poppies are produced on Armistice Day and they come in all shapes and sizes. Lovingly knitted and crocheted in their thousands, bejewelled or coaxed out of wood, metal, clay and paper, they are powerful visual commemorations of this important event.

Token of love

The poppy symbol takes its origin from the opening lines of John McCrae’s poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’. McCrae, a Canadian Army doctor, was moved by the sight of thousands of bright red Flanders poppies growing in the devastated fields of Western Europe. But before it became an official badge of remembrance with the Royal British Legion’s first Poppy Appeal of 1921, the poppy was the soldier’s rare flash of beauty on the Front. A poppy nestling within the folds of a letter to a sweetheart back home became a token of love and a souvenir from France.

‘In Flanders Fields’ is featured on the ‘Forever’ album released recently by Legion and Decca Records, which has spoken words and music, including the poem read by Stephen Fry and another version read by the descendants of WWI Victoria Cross recipients.

Massed display

Commemorative poppies have been around for almost a hundred years now but seldom, if ever, have they been this many. For the centenary, massive displays of poppies have been installed in churches and public buildings around England and Scotland. The scale of these installations reflects the sheer magnitude of the debt that freedom owes to the millions who died in the war.

At the Imperial War Museums in London and Manchester, hundreds of ceramic poppies in all their massed magnificence have been on show since July.

This year, for the first time since the symbol was created, khadi poppies will bloom. They will be worn alongside the traditional red and green ones to highlight the significance of the Indian war contribution. The fusion of the fabric that symbolises India’s freedom struggle with the poppy is a tribute to Indian soldiers. After a century of neglect at home and abroad, the story of the 1.5 million men who went from the villages and towns of India to fight the Empire’s war is finally being heard.

The writer is an English teacher who sets off on quirky quests in Bengaluru.