The Independent on Saturday - - METRO -

THE red poppy (Pa­paver rhoeas) is men­tioned in his­tory from the ear­li­est times. The flower was found in Egyp­tian pyra­mids dat­ing back 3 000 years. It fea­tured in Homer’s Iliad and plays a cen­tral role in Greek mythol­ogy. It has be­come the sym­bol of re­mem­brance for fallen com­rades. This is ex­plained by the sim­ple phe­nom­e­non that the poppy’s seed can lie dor­mant for extremely long pe­ri­ods and, once ex­posed to sun­light, the seeds sprout and grow in abun­dance.

There­fore, vast car­pets of pop­pies have nat­u­rally and poignantly bloomed on the churned and blood­ied earth of bat­tle­fields through the ages. Genghis Khan’s bat­tle­fields were cov­ered with the white Asian poppy and bat­tle­fields dur­ing the Napoleonic War were cov­ered in red pop­pies. Fields of pop­pies ap­peared in Flan­ders and else­where dur­ing World War 1 and in­spired many an­thems, songs and po­ems, in­clud­ing Lieu­tenant-Cololonel John McCrae’s now fa­mous poem, In Flan­ders Fields.

Af­ter the Great War, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple world­wide were un­em­ployed, in­ca­pac­i­tated and bereft as a re­sult. In the UK in 1921, Field Mar­shal Sir Dou­glas Haig, Com­man­der of the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force in Bel­gium and France, formed the (Royal) Bri­tish Le­gion to as­sist the men and women who served with him in bat­tle. A group of French vet­er­ans’ wid­ows sug­gested to him that the Le­gion sell French-made silk pop­pies to raise funds to sup­port the Bri­tish vet­er­ans. He or­dered 9 mil­lion of them and sold them on November 11, 1921.

And so the tra­di­tion of wear­ing a red poppy in re­mem­brance gained mo­men­tum. It is now com­mon prac­tise in many coun­tries, in­clud­ing South Africa.

The South African Le­gion dis­trib­utes pop­pies in aid of mil­i­tary vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies every year in November.

Re­cently, a pur­ple poppy has been in­tro­duced, rep­re­sent­ing all an­i­mals that served and were sac­ri­ficed in war.

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