The idea for a memorial emblem of the red poppy came in a moment of revelation to an American teacher, Moina Belle Michael. It was the Saturday morning of the 9th November, 1918 —two days before the Armistice was signed. A young soldier had placed a copy of the Ladies Home Journal on her desk where she was on duty for a Conference of the Overseas YMCA at Columbia University in New York City. She found time to read it and discovered the marked page which carried John Macrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’:
“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’.
This was followed by a full spiritual experience. It seemed as though she heard the silent voices of the dead, whispering and sighing in anxiety and anguish. In a moment of high resolve she pledged to KEEP FAITH WITH THEM and wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance with all who had died. She felt impelled to make a note of her pledge and, as she was hastily scribbling it down on the blank side of a used envelope, three men from the conference approached her with a gift of ten dollars to buy some flowers in appreciation of her work. Looking up from her intense reverie of dedication and noting the coincidence, she had replied:
“How strange. I shall buy red poppies —twenty-five red poppies. I shall always wear red poppies of Flanders Field! Do you know why?”
Moina had then shown them the poem by John Macrae and shared her inspiration. They were duly impressed and took the poem back with them to the Conference room. The conference were equally pleased and the men returned asking for red poppies to wear.
That Saturday afternoon Moina went poppy hunting in New York City and eventually found twenty five small silk red four-petaled poppies, fashioned after the wild poppies of Flanders. On her return to the university the men came crowding round for poppies to wear. She pinned one on her cloak collar and gave out the others. This was the first group ever to ask for poppies to wear in memory of their soldier dead.
As a result of ‘The Poppy Lady’s’ tireless campaigning, her dedication to the cause and the inspiration her idea gave to others, the red field poppy has become an internationally recognized symbol of Remembrance and continues to draw heart-felt public support as a fund raiser to relieve distress among war veterans and their families.
Yet the revelation that came to Moina was that the ‘war dead’ were not dead. They communicated that they were in a state of “anxiety and anguish”. Generating money from poppy sales gives much needed practical help to those who survived. But can we help the ‘war dead’ who are trapped in the mental torment of violent deaths and the grief of unfulfilled lives? The poppy represents the sacrifice associated with two world wars but today many think of the lives lost in Vietnam, The Falklands, Northern Ireland, Iran, and Afghanistan...
Moina’s heart had been stirred by a poem written from the heart of a poet. This opened an access point to the ‘war dead’ and she listened to their grief and suffering. We too can feel the heart open on reading the old war poems, or on hearing current war news (and not being entertained by sensationalism and human tragedy). On Remembrance Day (Memorial Day in May in America) the poppy can remind us of those who died in battle and is a point in time which can be used for heart communion with the ‘war dead’.
There is a recorded personal story of a soldier killed in 1918, ‘Private Dowding’, which describes his experience of ‘death’ in the battle-field. He had been sure death would mean extinction and he knew that many believed this. It was because extinction did not come to him that he was drawn to communicate his experience hoping that it would prove useful to some.
He did in fact ‘move on’ and describes inhabiting heaven worlds. The writer of this article mentions Private Dowding because of a coincidence that happened one November morning. She had been sorting out notes on this book when the author of 'CENTRE’ happened to walk in. She told him about Private Dowding’s story and how his book ‘Centre’ had opened the way to make sense of the soldier’s afterlife story. As Brian Taylor listened he had looked at his watch and quietly observed that it was exactly 11am – it was Remembrance Sunday (11th Hour, 11th Day, 11th Month) .
The ‘war dead’ have their suffering to wake up from; the living can recognise them when they come. We can share their Communion and unlock the meaning of that wonderful word.