With preparations well in advance for IWM London to present the well-known art installation ‘Weeping Window’ by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper before it and ‘Wave’ (also by the paur and currently on view at IWM North) become part of IWM’s collection, it seems appropriate to look at some poppies already in the IWM’s custody.
IN THE UNITED KINGDOM YOU CAN ALWAYS TELL WHEN IT IS NOVEMBER. The days are shorter, the sun is wintery – almost watery – and heavy clothes find their way out of the wardrobe.
And great swaithes of Poppies make their annual appearance – not staining the fields as they do in summer but individually on the lapels of coats and jackets.
Sold by the British Legion charity they are worn by everyone – from chauffeured royalty to jostling commuters – as people remember the dead of two World Wars and other armed conflicts since.
While the fundraising and organised remembrance can be dated from the early 1920s via the efforts of American Professor Moina Michael and Frenchwoman Anna Guérin, the popularity of John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Field’ and the Earl Haig Fund founded by British military commander Douglas Haig in 1921 to aid ex-serviecmen, the poppy was being used as a memory token even while the war was raging.
Servicemen themselves were sending back poppy blooms to their families and loved ones.
The flowers – which have the ability to lie dormant in the earth until they are disturbed. – were awakened by the vast military trench digging and camp building projects and emerged perhaps as reminders of other simpler times as well as symbols of enduring fortitude.
DRIED POPPY PICKED FROM THE AREA OF THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES by George Palmer, a Lance Corporal Pioneer in the Machine Gun Corps. He appears in the accompanying photograph. Image copyright IWM. IWM catalogue reference EPH 3938. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30083470
George Palmer’s poppy and photograph. Picked sometime in the later half of 1917, George’s poppy is framed with his picture and has faded to almost white.
His photograph is typical of the many soldier portraits that were taken either in studios or by travelling photographers in behind the lines in towns in France, Belgium or at home in Britain.
In this image George sits in a clean and pressed uniform against a painted backdrop, his rank chevron and specialist badges clearly visible.
With photography gaining popularity, the whole idea of photographic portraits at this time is a little mixed. While undoubtedly many loved ones welcomed the small hand-printed tokens it is possible that some saw it as ‘bad luck’.
Whoever received Lance Corporal Palmer’s picture clearly saw it and the poppy as a treasured memento.
Bill’s letter to Mrs Louise Fletcher: Anyone who has read the letters of First and Second World War servicemen will be familiar with the sentiment, one of a mixture of tired resignation, wanting the war to be over and a longing for family that can’t be expressed easily together with a desire to reassure.
Bill – his surname is not given but the way in which he writes indicates that the person he was was writing to was either his wife, sister or similar – does all this but also tells the reader of his feelings.
Writing on 10 July 1918 he had spent two weeks in a hospital and is now back with his Battalion. He is writing to ‘Louise Fletcher’ living in Regent Road, Salford Manchester, at the time a very working class area.
He tells her that he was too sick to write and thanks both Louise and her father for the parcels they sent him.
A first glance the contents of these may appear strange. He doesn’t thank them for foodstuffs or tobacco.
Louise’s father sent two boxes of ‘Soldier’s Friend’ metal polish. (1)
It was much appreciated as by Bill as ‘we can not get that polish around here and we must shine up. They must think it will help win the war‘.
Louise apparently sent some ‘Lux’ (soap flakes) as well as a ‘rose’.
Towards the end of his letter he writes that the unit is expecting to move:
… I suppose we are going back to where we came from, the Land of Hell, for it’s nothing no more than Hell on Earth. Of course we are used to it. Your Dad said that we had not killed them all, ‘no’ and a long way from it. I wish we had for we could then have our leave…
But he ends his letter on a different note.
This I plucked while I was convalescent. A souvenir from France.
What became of George and Bill is not recorded.
There is a possibility that Bill is a Canadian as the Poppy bloom enclosed with his letter bears a label that may read ‘Sent from France by a Canuck July 9th 1918’, the term ‘Canuck’ being an informal one for a Canadian.
If he were serving with a Canadian unit his letter could be describing events leading up to the Canadian Corps role as a major participant (with the Australians) in the Battle of Amiens, part of the One Hundred Days Offensive which in turn ended the stalemate on the Western Front in favour of the Allies. (2)
The Corps had been withdrawn from the front line to rest, reorganise and train for the Amiens battle which started on 8 August.
Bill’s comments about the ‘shining up’ could point to re-organisation and an attempt to re-invigorate pride while his comments about the Battalion moving back to the front would fit, as the Canadian Corps returned to the front in mid July.
Details of the Poppies Tour at IWM London and IWM North can be found at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/seasons/poppies-wave-and-weeping-window
If you can add any more information about either George or Bill, please see the Lives of The First World War project which is endeavouring to remember each of the 8,000,000 men and women from Britain and the Commonwealth who served in the First World War.
Just follow the link immediately below to learn more.
(1) https://hatchfive.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/the-soldiers-friend-metal-polish-tin/ – retrieved 19 September 2018
(2) https://www.canadiansoldiers.com/history/campaigns/westernfront/westernfront.htm – retrieved 19 September 2018