Remembrance poppies are unmissable in the United Kingdom, and in the Commonwealth nations. How ironic is it, then, that the two women who championed the poppy are from the United States and France, two countries where the poppy has largely faded into obscurity? This is the story of those two Poppy Ladies, Moina Michael and Anna Guerin; the story of the World War I poem that inspired them; and the story of the poppy enchanting me with its simple elegance, its powerful symbolism, but also... scaring me a little.
Amid the carnage at the Second Battle of Ypres, mourning a young comrade, Colonel John McCrae wrote a poem that would forever change the poppy into symbol of remembrance. Not that it didn't take some legwork. American Moina Michael wrote a response verse and promised to wear a poppy forevermore. She also signed away her work to a lecture bureau in hopes that her idea would take hold.
That's where she hit a roadblock. Getting into business meant making the poppy into something more... complex. The Liberty Emblem didn't catch on, and by the time Moina was back in the game, another woman was being praised as "The Poppy Lady."
Anna Guerin had been touring the United States as a lecturer since the start of the war, and was now hosting Poppy Days as a representative of La Ligue Americaine Francaise des Enfants. Soon after ensuring the American Legion would use artificial poppies made by French widows, she and her representatives set up similar deals in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand... Anna was busy.
The relationship between the two Poppy Ladies did not truly boil over into disdain until Moina focused on writing her autobiography, shoring up her legacy as the true Poppy Lady. Anna refused to give Moina permission to use her name and words until she could see what Moina was planning to say about her. And so, in the finished book, The Miracle Flower, Anna is only referred to in veiled terms like "the French visitor." Which makes it seem like Moina couldn't even bring herself to say the name Anna Guerin. And by that point, hey, maybe she couldn't.
Poppies are everywhere today in England, and not just in November. This picture was taken in Salisbury cathedral, where regiments are commemorated with wreaths.
And in Westminster Abbey, where the Unknown Soldiers tomb is surrounded by red poppies, another tomb in Poet's Corner commemorates all the War Poets, including Rupert Brooke.