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Red poppies for remembrance

South Africa’s estimated 1.2 million war veterans are all urged to wear a red poppy this week in remembrance of comrades-in-arms worldwide who died during numerous wars and conflicts.

The wearing of the red poppy is a British and Commonwealth tradition dating back to the cessation of hostilities in World War I, also known as the Great War.

The armistice ending the 1914-18 conflict took place in a remote railway siding in the forest of Compiègne in France at 5.30am on November 11, 1918, and noted: “Hostilities will cease at 11am today, November 11. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour.”

Legionnaire Chris Giles of the SA Legion, South Africa’s single largest military veterans organisation said: “After World WarI, millions were affected by the dreadful carnage and the idea of a day of remembrance of some sort came up.

“Today it is called Remembrance Day, or Poppy Day, recalling the armistice on the western front, the last front still fighting in the 1914-18 war.”

The story of the poppy is intertwined with the setting up of organisations to assist former combatants who were injured or unemployed.

In the then British Empire, of which South Africa was part at that time, Gen Jan Smuts, Field Marshal Earl Haig and Maj-Gen Sir HT Lukin founded the British Empire Service League in February 1921. It continues today as the SA Legion, which turns 90 in February.

The connection between remembering the war dead and the poppy began on the battlefields of northern France and Belgium, where some of the heaviest fighting of the war took place. The fighting there was also notable for its misery. Soldiers noticed that the only flower that grew after artillery blasted the battlefields was the blood-red poppy.

The modern-day use of the poppy, a common flower in much of Europe, to remember the war dead is linked to three people.

A Canadian officer serving in Belgium during World War I, John McCrae, wrote a poem about the flowering of poppies on the battlefields.

This was followed by a poem written by American Prof Moina Michaels, and a Frenchwoman, a certain Madame E Guérin, took the poppy idea back to France from America. She made poppies and sold them to raise money for war orphans and widows. She also convinced British military leaders to use the poppy as a symbol of Armistice Day.

“The corn poppy, which grows naturally in red in Flanders Fields, does not contain opium. The opium poppy is native to Asia,” Giles explained to dispel any possible link.

“A main theme for this year’s commemoration is the Indian community’s contribution to South Africa. The first indentured Indians arrived in the country on November 14, 1860.”

Remembrance Day services will take place at 11am on Sunday at venues throughout the country, the largest ones at the Johannesburg Cenotaph, the Union Buildings in Pretoria and Cape Town’s Adderley Street.