The red poppy has long been a signifier of remembrance for those who valiantly gave their lives in the First World War, and although the infamous Flanders Fields was filled with these flowers, very few people know the true story about why we began pinning these poppies to our clothes.
Moina Belle Michael, a young teacher volunteering with the YMCA, describes how the idea for a memorial emblem of a red poppy came to her in a moment of revelation.
Date: Saturday 9th of November 1918 – Location: Y.M.C.A War Secretaries Conference, Hamilton Hall.
Moina Belle Michael was in a gloomy room called the “Gemot” which was a large, rectangular space with table and chairs, often used as a ‘get-together place.’ A solemn room where soldiers, sailors and marines would regularly say their goodbye’s to mothers, wives and other close family members.
On this day, a young soldier placed a copy of the November Ladies Home Journal on Moina’s desk.
“At around 10:30, whilst everyone else was on duty elsewhere, I found time to read the magazine and discovered the marked page which carried Colnel John McCrae’s poem, “We Shall Not Sleep’, later named ‘In Flanders Fields.’
“I read the poem, the last verse transfixed me. This was for me, a full spiritual experience. It seemed as though the silent voices again were vocal, ‘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’. I pledged to KEEP THE FAITH and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of keeping the faith with all who died, and hastily scribbled my pledge on an old yellow envelope.”
The Y.M.C.A. conference fully supported Moina’s pledge and after adjournment, the men came down asking for red poppies to wear. This is the first group – effort asking for poppies to wear in memory of all who died in Flanders Fields.
That Saturday afternoon Moina trawled the streets of New York in search of poppies and found one large red poppy which she bought for her desk bud-vase along with 24 small silk red, four-petaled poppies. She pinned one on her cloak collar and gave out the others until the last of the 25 red poppies was pinned on the lapel of a Y.M.C.A secretary.
Monica writes “since this was the first group ever to ask for poppies to wear in memory of our soldier dead, and since this group gave me the money with which to buy them, I have always considered that I, then and there, consummated the first sale of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy.”
You can find a display and more information about this in the reception area of YMCA North Tyneside.