Poppies & Pitches: Part 2

Written by TJ

[Please note this article will be moving to a new home at Football In The City and will soon no longer be available on this website]

The Commercialisation of the Poppy

The Great War had altered the existing balance of power and the landscape of the world forever. Millions of women entered the workforce to support men who went to war, and to replace those who never came back. The War-to-End-All-Wars helped to spread one of the deadliest pandemics the world had ever seen, the Spanish flu epidemic.  It would kill an estimated 20 to 50 million people.  It also saw the emergence of the USA from an insular nation to an imperialist force.

The USA was a late entrant to the war.  Staying out of the war had been good for business while Britain, France, Germany in particular (major competitors to the USA at that time) busied themselves cannibalising each other. Later in the war those same countries would represent a huge market to sell anything and everything the USA had to offer at whatever they would charge. American banks financed the Allied forces war effort.  At least it did until doubts about France’s ability to repay surfaced at which point profits had to be protected. The USA ended up involved in the war for the very same reason that Britain did years earlier from an initial plan of sitting on the side-lines providing just enough support to let its rivals consume each other. Eventually they had to in order to avoid an outright German victory due to their formidable modern war machine. The domination of Europe by one power was bad for business unless it was yours. By waiting until the brink, America emerged with minimal casualties (50,000 from 2,000,000 serving troops) and virtually all the economic advantages previously carved up by the old world Great Powers.

“According to the best accountancy figures, it cost about $25,000 to kill a soldier during the World War. There is one class of Big Business Men in Europe that never rose up to denounce the extravagance of its governments in this regard — to point out that when death is left unhampered as an enterprise for the individual initiative of gangsters the cost of a single killing seldom exceeds $100. The reason for the silence of these Big Business Men is quite simple: the killing is their business.” – Fortune Magazine, 1934

“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” – War Is a Racket (1935), Major General Smedley Butler (US Marine)

The British national debt increased from £650m in 1914 to £7.4 billion in 1919.  Britain borrowed heavily from the USA – the last of this debt would not be paid off until 2015.

In a sense it’s almost inevitable the USA should be directly involved in the commercialisation of the poppy.

From around April 1918, poppies were given out in New York when accepting war effort donations, again during the war as happened in Britain. No-one can really say what emotion was attached to the original symbolism on the other side of the pond but the poppy ultimately did not take off there to the same extent.

Anna Guérin, the french national mentioned in Part 1 as sending manufactured poppies to Britain in 1921, by 1919 had begun selling poppies for the benefit of fatherless children in the devastated regions of France.  Her story is a fascinating one. For much of the war she toured the US encouraging American involvement and support.  When the USA became involved she continued to lecture and tour raising finance and support. Throughout 1918 she would pass out poppy boutonnières in exchange for donations. The Armistace was called while she was returning by boat to France. She continued her work in both France and the US by setting up branches either side of the Atlantic of what would become referred to as the ‘Fraternal League of the Children of France’ or the ‘American & French Childrens League’ – with the poppy as their emblem – to support the same displaced and desolate children.

“It was in the Spring of 1919, while watching the children of devastated France as they made wreaths of brilliant red poppies for the graves of overseas soldiers, that the idea of securing help for the poorly clad orphans children of destroyed France came to Madame Guerin.” Canadian ‘Port Arthur News Chronicle of 05 July 1921

In the immediate aftermath of the Great War then the wreaths of poppies made and laid on the graves of the fallen represented gratitude for the sacrifices made that allowed a broken people to return to life.

Those orphans in poverty and desolation however inspired what would become a commercial exercise to make a positive change.  It was only natural to Madame Guerin that the poppy should become the symbol of solidarity and support for those left behind by war.

This image showing some of the charitable work achieved is reproduced from the excellent site on the life of Madame Guerin where it credit the image to the Nebraska State Historical Society.


In 1920, the American Legion would become the first veterans association to adopt the proposal of a Poppy Day, following  a visit and speech by Madame Guérin at their convention. On 28 May 1921 the world would see the first Poppy Day celebrated nationwide.  The idea spread throughout what would soon become known as the Commonwealth countries but was then the remnants of a soon fast fragmenting British Empire.

On 15 May 1921, the British Legion was formed from four pre-existing national organisations. The Prince of Wales became its first Patron and Earl Haig its first President. As mentioned in Part 1, Madame Guérin would provide the initial poppies after convincing the British Legion to adopt the symbol and a poppy day.  Armistace Day was selected for the display.  Monies raised would be used to help injured veterans with some going back to France to help the orphans of shattered families.  The poppies would be advanced ahead of payment to a British Legion who could not afford to pay up front.

“In the late summer of 1921, Col. Crosfield asked me if I would meet a Madame Guerin. This little French lady visited headquarters and showed us some small artificial ‘poppies’ of a type then being made by certain French women and sold for the benefit of children in the devastated areas of France. Would the Legion care to adopt the emblem as a means of raising money for its own purposes?   There were two firms in France ready to supply the material.  She would want a certain percentage for her own organisation in France…. It was August – the sale and collection, if it were to be made, was due for November 11. There was no time to make suitable arrangements on this side of the Channel.  If we were to do anything with the idea we must use the French organisation.  Col. Heath recalls how Sir Herbert Brown went over to Paris, and how he reported to the next meeting of the Finance Committee that all appeared to be in order.  The firms did exist, and they were ready to supply the material to the organisation for making the poppies; the women in the devastated areas of France would make them.   Sir Herbert was asked to go back to Paris and order many thousands of poppies.”  

Colonel Edward Charles Heath’s version of Madame Guérin’s visit – from an issue of the Legion Journal

Although initially the poppies were part of an inter-allied initiative aimed at helping both injured servicemen and the devastated orphans of France, before long the poppies would be made in a factory in Birmingham by disabled soldiers, cutting the French orphans out the equation and under most contemporary accounts the idea would be credited to Earl Haig.  Britain was financially stricken in the aftermath of the war and the Legion was no different. The poppy appeal allowed a means of looking after the stricken from the Great War that the country was unable to.

“[The Welfare State] Germinated in the social thought of late Victorian liberalism, reached its infancy in the collectivism of the pre-and post-Great War statism, matured in the universalism of the 1940s and flowered in full bloom in the consensus and affluence of the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s it was in decline, like the faded rose of autumn. Both UK and US governments are pursuing in the 1980s monetarist policies inimical to welfare.” – Historian Derek Fraser, 1984

Britain was a very different place back then. The poppy appeal provided a mechanism for taking care of vulnerable people before the government of the day really felt a responsibility to do so.

The early meanings of the poppy as described here and in Part 1 and Madame Guérin’s involvement would be largely airbrushed from history. Even at that, the commercial poppy at that time represented solidarity and pulling together in a crisis to help your brother man.  It stood for allowing the greviously injured a reasonable standard of living for all that they’d already given the greater populace.  It is a meaning that would come to be bastardised as history unrolled itself.

Next: Part 3 – It Wasn’t the War to End All Wars

Previous: Part 1 – The Pre-Poppy Backdrop

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