The British Empire Library

The Book of the Poppy

by Chris McNab

Chris McNab has written a concise history of what is almost certainly the most important symbol of remembrance for those who have fallen in war. Its role in British and Commonwealth societies is clearly earmarked but perhaps few will know its truly international inspiration in the light of the horrors of World War One. The symbol of the Poppy growing in the seemingly inhospitable wastelands of 'No Man's Land' was highlighted by the Canadian poet / doctor / soldier John Alexander McCrae who served and died on the Western Front. McNab explains how this bright, resilient 'weed' not only survived but positively thrived in the churned battlefields of France and Belgium. Its redness hinted at the blood and sacrifice of soldiers killed but its green stalks and its ability to grow in the most hostile of environments represented 'hope' in such a forlorn landscape. The author explains how this commonly observed and remarked upon flower became the symbol of remembrance in the immediate Post-Great War World. He explains the role played by Moina Michael who was so moved by McCrae's poem that she started making her own poppies and started selling them to raise money and eventually convinced the American Legion to use it as a symbol. He then explains the role of the French lady Madame Guerin who observed the American Legion's use of the poppy first hand and brought the idea back to Europe. It was Madame Guerin who was to approach General Haig and convince him of the merits of using the poppy to raise money for veterans and wounded soldiers. Once adapted in Britain, its idea quickly spread throughout the Empire and Commonwealth and became a common, uniting symbol honouring the fallen from the cataclysmic war.

The book does not begin and end with World War One, it looks into the history of the armed services in Britain and explains the many more conflicts and victims of wars since the supposed 'War to end all Wars' finished in 1918. There are a few errors that creep in every now and then. One that leapt out at me was that the switch of the Regimental system from numbered to County names was supposedly done in the 20th Century under Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane. This switch was actually done back in 1881 under the Childers Reforms born out of the famous Cardwell Army forces. I wonder if the author was thinking of the reforms to the Territorial Army which were indeed brought about by Haldane. The book is actually very innovatively designed with good use of red and black throughout. It has many graphs, tables, maps and cutaway poems which help break up the text and add some interesting asides. I particularly appreciated the one about bomber command being the most dangerous formation for British military during World War Two. However, sometimes the facts and figures gathered are a little too abstract and do not always connect fully with the points being raised in the text. There are also some odd collections of statistics or rather the choice of data included. One example is a table on Major Battles in British History which includes obviously famous battles like Hastings and Agincourt but also includes the Aliwal in the Punjab in 1846 but fails to mention the far more famous and far more important battle of Plassey from 1757. Plassey was instrumental in helping Britain gain control of India, whilst Aliwal was certainly a big battle but only one that did little more than extend its frontiers. It is just an odd choice and an odd omission and this was not the only occasion where I found myself questioning the value of the supporting tables or information.

It should be said that the author writes very clearly and the book makes for a pleasant read. The text is engaging and takes some interesting side roads. I was a little disappointed that the book did not expand on a few themes such as what happened to the Remembrance Day commemorations during the Second World War Years for instance. But I certainly learned a few interesting facts from the book and it held my attention throughout. I particularly appreciated the commentary on the various war poems highlighted throughout. It is a fairly brief book at just 158 pages and is broken up yet more by the colourful tables, maps and graphs but this does not diminish the fact that it achieves it goal of explaining the origin behind the choice of the humble 'papaver rhoeas' as the symbol to commemorate the dead from war and conflict all over the Empire, Commonwealth and wider World since the end of The Great War.

British Empire Book
Chris McNab
The History Press


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by Stephen Luscombe