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Today is the annual commemoration of Armistice Day and millions of us will be wearing our poppies with pride in recognition and remembrance of those who laid down their lives for our freedom. But why do we wear poppies as symbols of remembrance, and where do they come from? 

During the First World War (1914 -18) much of the fighting took place in Western Europe, where previously beautiful countryside was reduced to barren, mud-filled wastelands as it was bombed, blasted, dug into trenches and fought over again and again.

Almost nothing would grow in this colourless landscape, except the bright red Flanders poppies, which blossomed in their thousands, springing up almost as soon as they were cut down. In early May 1915, after losing a good friend in fierce fighting at Ypres, a Canadian doctor, Lt Col. John Mc Crae, penned a famous poem, inspired by the sight of the poppies. Its first verse reads:

In Flanders' fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Very quickly the poppy became a symbol of remembrance, regeneration and hope. McCrae’s poem inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to make and sell red silk poppies, which were first brought to England by a French woman, Anna Guerin. The British Legion (later the Royal British Legion) was formed in 1921 to bring aid to ex-servicemen, and that year ordered nine million of the silk poppies, which were made by French war widows.

It sold them on November 11th, the anniversary of Armistice Day, marking the end of the war. The poppies sold out almost immediately, that first ever “Poppy Appeal” raising more than £106,000 – equivalent to around £4.3 million today. The money was used to help struggling First World War veterans, many of them injured or disabled, to find housing and employment.

The appeal was so successful that the following year Major General George Howson set up what would become the “Poppy Factory”. He reasoned that manufacturing the poppies in England could also provide work for its disabled ex-servicemen.

Howson had sought permission from Earl Haig, founder of the British Legion, who gave him £2,000 to set up the factory, initially under the name “The Disabled Society” and with just six staff. Within a decade Howson was employing more than 350 disabled veterans to make the individual poppies and wreaths for Armistice Day services. Having outgrown its original small premises off the Old Kent Road, in London, the operation – now known as The Poppy Factory – moved to new and much larger premises in Richmond, Surrey.

Housing for workers and their families was built on land next to the factory, which was itself rebuilt and extended in 1932. When George Howson died from cancer in 1936, his coffin was taken to The Poppy Factory and surrounded by colourful wreaths and poppies. Workers then took turns to stand for an hour in silent vigil next to the coffin, in memory of their visionary benefactor.

The design of the commemorative poppy, which has changed little over the years, was brilliantly simple, consisting of just three component parts – a stem, paper petal and central black button fastening the three pieces together. This simple design, with a leaf added later, meant millions of poppies could be made. Originally the black button bore the words “Haig Fund”, but this was changed in 1994 to read “Poppy Appeal”.

Right from the start the demand for poppies was so high in England and Wales that very few made it north of the border to Scotland. That prompted Earl Haig’s wife to establish the “Lady Haig Poppy Factory” in Edinburgh in 1926. Today it still employs disable ex-Servicemen to produce more than five million poppies each year exclusively for Scotland.

By the end of the 20th century, the focus of the original Poppy Factory was gradually shifting to meet the changing needs of people leaving the Armed Forces with a range of transferrable skills and keen to work in their own communities, closer to their families. Steadily the workforce at Richmond began to decline, with automation taking up the slack, while The Poppy Factory began supporting disabled veterans into employment with receptive businesses around the country.

That work continues, but millions of poppies and related products are still made each year by disabled ex-Service personnel at The Poppy Factory, which was visited by HM the Queen in 2012 and now has the Duchess of Cornwall as its Royal Patron.

2014 – marking 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War – saw the most successful Poppy Appeal ever. It raised more than £44 million to further George Howson’s original dream of giving disabled ex-Service personnel their chance through a widening range of initiatives.

So when you wear your poppy this year, do it with pride, and maybe drop a few extra coins in the poppy seller’s collection tin, secure in the knowledge of the good they will do.

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