“In Flanders fields, the poppies blow…
Just a few days ago we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of Compiègne, which marked the end of World War I. Ever since, poppies, often artificial ones, are worn in former parts of the British Empire on Remembrance Day as a reminder of the soldiers who died in the war to end all wars. It’s lesser known that the flower was first adopted by the American Legion to honor Americans who fell in the war and was only worn in the Commonwealth later.
Poppies are hardy flowers and were the first to take seed in the churned-up ground on soldiers’ graves in the Flanders region of Belgium. The sight of the red flowers covering the graves, and the burial of a friend, inspired Canadian soldier and physician John McCrae to write the poem In Flanders Fields, which, along with the poppies he described, became a world-famous symbol of the tragedy of World War I.
In addition to poppies, there are many other flowers also associated with the First World War and World War II. Here’s a sampling of them.
The scent of the rosemary has been described as being good for the memory ever since ancient Greek times. It still has a long-standing association with remembrance. It’s often worn by Australians on ANZAC Day, along with a poppy, to honor the Australian and New Zealand troops who died in the Gallipoli Campaign. Rosemary grows wild on the Gallipoli peninsula, making it an especially apt choice of symbol.
The edelweiss (literally noble-white) is a European mountain flower. It has long been associated with alpinism due to its high-altitude habitat. Austro-Hungarian alpine troops started wearing it on their collars in 1907. In World War I, the German Alpenkorps came to the aid of Austro-Hungarian mountain troops during the Italian offensive of 1915. The Gebirgsjäger expressed their gratitude by awarding their insignia to the Germans, who started wearing it, too. During World War II, German paratroopers also adopted the flower to express their elite status. The tradition continues today thanks to the 1st Battalion of the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), who also wear the symbol.
The small white flower was also adopted by the Edelweiss Pirates, an anti-Nazi youth movement of 14-17-year-olds, who evaded Hitler Youth membership and military conscription. Before the war, they usually only risked public humiliation and a temporary stay in prison or a concentration camp, but 13 members were publicly hanged in 1944.
Another white flower, the white rose, was the symbol of another, eponymous anti-Nazi group, this one comprising Munich professors and students. They distributed leaflets and spread political graffiti until they were dismantled by the Gestapo in 1943, with many members executed or imprisoned. Their choice of symbol expressed moral purity and was probably inspired by romantic and 20th century German literature.
The beautiful but ephemeral cherry blossom has long been associated with beauty and mortality in Japanese culture. It had been adopted by samurai culture, which venerated the loss of life during one’s duty. In World War II, the flowers came to stand for the lives of kamikaze pilots, beautiful and cut short. Pilots leaving for their final flight were often seen off by girls waving cherry blossoms and they often decorated their planes with the same motif. The Ohka suicide bomb was even named after the flower.
Another typically Japanese flower is the chrysanthemum. It is the Imperial Seal of Japan and the Imperial Institution, being the world’s oldest continuing hereditary monarchy, is called the Chrysanthemum Throne. During the war, Japanese weapons, most notably Arisaka rifles, were stamped with the 16-petal Imperial Seal to mark them as property of the Emperor. Guns handed over to the victorious Allies usually had the seal ground off. The exact reason is unknown but it was either done on General MacArthur’s orders or carried out by the Japanese themselves to prevent the shame of the seal falling into enemy hands.
Meanwhile, Juliana’s mother, Queen Wilhelmina, sought refuge in Britain. As a reminder of their nationality and the struggle of the Dutch Resistance, she encouraged fellow refugees to wear the daisy, another flower common in the Netherlands, on their lapels.
You can learn more about how the world wars continue to affect a myriad elements of our culture today on our Fields of World War I Tour and World War II tours to the Western Front, the East and the Pacific Theater.