After a long, cold winter the weather the Spring of 1915 was unusually warm. Among the trampled soil and burnt out carcasses of trees, the poppies grew. Of all the symbols which stand as testimony to the First World War, the red poppy is at the forefront. In May 1915 Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who was stationed at Ypres wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” which, in its final line, has the first reference to the battlefield poppies; “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”
Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ explains perfectly the reason for wearing a poppy each year on 11th of November. “Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn… We will remember them.” Acknowledging the fallen is not the sole purpose of remembrance; the horror of the First World War was such that people were determined to remember the consequences of such a conflict and the unmitigated damage which it caused, the loss of an entire generation.
The flower itself is a euphemistic symbol of resilience and determination; the wild poppies which were strewn across the battlefields of Mons and Flanders could only grow in a state of constantly churned up soil and so flourished in the barren wastelands of the Western Front. This sent out the message that despite the fallen soldiers, life still prevailed. There are few other symbols, with their delicate blood red petals, which could be such a poignant reminder of the destruction and death and yet stand for such remembrance and hope.
One symbol which does possess a similar strength and which did endure is the Star of David, of especial significance during World War Two. The Nazis attempted to brand the Jews with their own star in mockery of their religion and to set them apart from the societies in which they lived. Instead of the intended purpose of shaming the Jews and extinguishing their religion permanently, the Star of David set them apart, marked them out in defiance. Many Jews did not hide their faith despite it resulting in their deaths.
From the opening of the first ‘death camp’ at Treblinka in Poland in 1941 through to the closing of the camps in 1945, the Nazis were able to exterminate six million Jews and yet despite their best efforts the Jewish faith and their star prevailed, like the poppy.
Both of these potent symbols are above all a reminder of the men and women who died for what they believed in, when faced with untenable adversity.