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Where Do Poppies Come From?

Last week, the taller half and I were at the Tower of London with an out-of-town guest. It has become an annual trip because it really is one of the best tourist attractions in London. I last wrote about the Tower back in November of 2011 when my good friend was over to visit. Back then, I was singing the praises of the Beefeater tours (included in the ticket price). Now, I'm not so sure.

In January, we went with the taller half's sister and had a raging chauvinist for a guide who went beyond suggesting it was only women who would want to see the crown jewels into very uncomfortable territory about all women only loving "soft furnishings" and one very awkward joke that included the deaths of both Shirley Temple and an Al-Qaeda bomb maker. Although, the crown jewels joke seems to be part of the standard script, generally I still highly recommend the tour. During the summer they run every 30 minutes, so if you get the chauvinist idiot, just wait for the next one.

This time we went with my aunt and hopped on a tour with a lovely, very funny and not (at least not obviously) chauvinist guide. Our only complaint was his misunderstanding of the origin of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for fallen soldiers. Odd, perhaps, for a veteran, but not so odd for British culture which tends to appropriate like crazy.

Poppies Pouring from the Tower of London - Andrea Vail, CC License

For my American readers, you may or may not be familiar with the tradition of wearing poppies leading up to Remembrance Day/Veteran's Day on the 11th of November. It's a British Commonwealth thing and definitely observed in both Canada and the UK.

At the Tower, they are creating quite the art installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies planted in the dry moat. Each poppy represents a British or colonial military fatality during the First World War. The last poppy will be planted on 11 November 2014. The installation is called "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Blood" and is part of the observances going on across Europe to mark the centenary of the start of WWI.

When we were there, the installation was less than 10% complete and was already impressive in its ability to show the sheer destruction of war. Imagine if they were to add civilian losses. My inner pacifist arises.

Unfortunately, our guide said that the poppy springs from British tradition. Not strictly true. In fact, just not true. The poppy as a symbol of WWI is most definitely Canadian. It comes from Canadian soldier John McCrae's very famous poem, "In Flanders Fields". Commonwealth, yes, but not British.

In Flanders Fields

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.

So, if you choose to wear a poppy in remembrance, remember also it comes from a poem written by a young Canadian fighting thousands of miles from home for a country that seems to have since forgotten him, but appropriated his imagery. Commonwealth soldiers are not to be represented by poppies, so McCrae, who did not survive the war, will not have a poppy at the Tower.

On the writing side, this certainly proves the worth of one specific, clear, concrete image.