Art of making poppies in memory of war victims

Saturday November 17 2018

A military orchestra attends a World War I ceremony in Mons, Belgium, on November 11, 2018 as part of commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the 11 November 1918 armistice, ending World War I. PHOTO | AFP

A military orchestra attends a World War I ceremony in Mons, Belgium, on November 11, 2018 as part of commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the 11 November 1918 armistice, ending World War I. PHOTO | AFP 

AFP
By AFP
More by this Author

Military veterans have perfected the art of making the artificial red poppies that millions have been wearing in their lapels as Britain marks the World War I armistice centenary.

Yet it all began with one poem by a Canadian author. Some 30 former service personnel, who have all suffered physical or psychological injury, also made the wreaths used during the main ceremony last Sunday.

Some of the poppies have also featured on the jersey of footballers, especially in the English Premier League.

SALVATION

The Poppy Factory by the River Thames in London was founded in 1922 to provide work for sick, injured or disabled veterans.

"I feel like I'm doing something to be proud of," said 59-year-old Alex Conway, one of the former British army and French foreign legion soldiers involved in making the poppies.

Conway signed up for the army as a teenager and after about 15 years in uniform and several missions in Africa, he had a "very difficult" transition to civilian life. He was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just over a year ago, which helped him better understand problems with his marriage, anger and alcohol.

Conway puts his salvation down to the Poppy Factory.

"We have a good laugh, so it's comradeship again, like being in the army," he told AFP. "We look after each other."

In an adjoining room, a machine cuts hundreds of petals from a red sheet of paper. The poppies are assembled on a wooden block designed to be used by one-handed by amputees.

The factory handmade 140,000 wreaths last year and disabled veterans and home-workers made 7.6 million poppies.

They are part of the 40 million poppies sold by the Royal British Legion charity during its annual November campaign, raising around £50 million ($65 million) to help support veterans and their families. The poppy's origins as a remembrance symbol lie in Canadian soldier John McCrae's 1915 poem "In Flanders Fields".

Britain's Princess Anne and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

Britain's Princess Anne, Princess Royal, (left) and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II attend the annual Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in London on November 10, 2018. This year's Festival commemorated all those who lost their lives in conflicts and will mark 100 years since the end of the First World War. PHOTO | CHRIS JACKSON | POOL | GETTY IMAGES | AFP

SYMBOL

It cites the poppies growing on the graves of fallen World War I comrades in Belgium and northeastern France.

Given the scale of the casualties, people "felt an overwhelming desire to remember and to grieve in a way that had never happened before", said Imperial War Museum curator Richard Hughes.

"They needed symbols to associate with."

About 10 million civilians are believed to have died during the war while millions more were wounded and widowed.

Together the warring nations accounted for more than 800 million people, which was more than half the world's population at the time.

Germany and Russia suffered the highest numbers of dead and wounded, with 10 million soldiers generally estimated to have been killed and more than double that number wounded overall.

The conflict saw the first large-scale use of chemical weapons when German forces deployed chlorine gas at Ypres in Belgium in 1915. Toxic gas eventually claimed 20,000 lives over the war.

The war left 10 million refugees across Europe, three million widows and six million orphans.

Like all great tragedies, the war inspired many works of art, among the most notable being McCrae's poem.

Advertisement