on 13 November 2013
Detailed, well written and expertly researched, Dr Nicholas J Saunders reveals how for thousands of years the poppy in its various forms has been heralded as a symbol of remembrance, a method of escapism and a tool of oppression. So intimately linked with the trenches of the Great War, Saunders shows how the poppy's history goes far beyond the killing fields of the Western Front. For millennia mankind has shared a complex and intimate relationship with this most social of flowers and here we learn the roles it has played in Empire building, the oppression of entire cultures and the waging of modern warfare. From Ancient Egypt to Helen of Troy, and the killing fields of the First World War to the bloody valleys of modern-day Afghanistan, this book highlights the power of the poppy to shape our world. An excellent book that is destined to change the way this crimson bloom is viewed, exposing how its raw power has influenced all our lives. Highly recommended.
on 12 February 2014
A timely reminder, lest we forget, that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1. The Remembrance Day Poppy has become the most recognizable symbol of that war and many conflicts since. Inspired by John McCrae's poem 'In Flanders' Fields' and made manifest through the crusading zeal of two women, Anna Guerin and Moina Michael before being taken up by the British Legion, this study shows that the poppy as a memorial flower goes back at least 6,000 years. The association is due in large part to the conflation of the Corn Poppy with the Opium Poppy and this book is a very readable account of the history of both. Human folly seems to have been inextricably linked to these plants for millennia and Saunders acts as an enlightened guide to our need to remember and our desire to forget which brings us, with exquisite irony, from the hell of Helmand to Gardening Leave in Auchincruive.
All flowers have meaning, supposedly - "there's rosemary, that's for remembrance—" to quote Ophelia - but few flowers come as weighted with meaning and significance as the humble poppy. It is hard now, almost impossible, to think of the battlefields of WW1 without envisaging poppies, hard to imagine any kind of remembrance ceremony without the red poppy wreaths. Warfare and poppies have become one, and as a result the poppy itself has become as enmeshed in political, ideological, economic and religious conflict as it once was in Flanders' fields.
Nicholas Saunders charts the history of the poppy - or more appropriately, two species of poppy, the red corn poppy and the white opium poppy. The two are often confused, and in the history of warfare have almost become inseparable, one a symbol of death and blood spilled, the other the source of pain-relief and the haze of forgetfulness. Corn poppies thrive in broken ground, partly why they grow in such profusion in battlefields, and opium poppies have been harvested for their narcoleptic effect for thousands of years. In the supreme example of the combining of the two, and in one of our more shameful historical episodes, the British Empire even fought a war over the right to profit from illegal opium sales in China.
Understandably the focus in this book is primarily on WW1 and the adoption of the red poppy as the official symbol of honour and remembrance, but it also focuses heavily on the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and especially the opium trade in the latter country. The combination of the red corn poppy and the white opium poppy, whilst understandable given how often the two are confused, makes this book's narrative a tad muddled - leaping from red poppies and Remembrance Sundays to the War on Terror and the Taliban gives a reader a certain amount of literary whiplash. Perhaps a more straight-forward exploration of the red poppy's adoption, meaning, significance and controversies might have made for a more coherent narrative, without the detours into the drug trade and Taliban.