The digital magazine of The Parachute Regimental Association

Messenger of The Gods British Parachute Wings Pin Badge

The Poppy Lady

  • Posted on 11 Oct 2021
  • 21 min read

By Dick Merry

All things come to those who wait. The proverb comes from the poem ‘Tout vient à qui sait attendre’ by the English poet Violet Fane. Fane was writing in French and the last verse of her poem –– translated into English –– says: Ah, all things come to those who wait/(I say these words to make me glad/But something answers soft and sad/They come, but often too late.

That final verse proved prescient for Madame Anna Guérin, who brought us the Poppy a hundred years ago this year. Until very recently she has received little or no recognition other than from aficionados. There is another proverb reminding us that it is always better late than never.

Guérin’s contribution to the Poppy’s adoption as Britain’s symbol of war-related loss, suffering and rebirth has been obscured to a great extent. It is not widely known that it was popularised by this extraordinary Frenchwoman; it is time that we recognised her.

All the World War One Veterans are dead now and over 100 years have passed since the guns fell silent across the Western Front. We as a nation, though, are left with powerful reminders of the huge sacrifice and the public grief that overwhelmed the nation in the immediate postwar years.

One painful decision taken in London earlier in the war was that the dead of the Empire would remain where they died, albeit in specially built cemeteries across the world. There would be no repatriation of bodies, unlike those of Americans and French soldiers who fell in battle or died from wounds. The decision was made for a variety of reasons –– religious, the cost and public health –– in an era when the transporting of hundreds of thousands of dead in varying states of decomposition across the world was logistically inconceivable. Families were left with no bodies to mourn; either they were buried overseas or simply disappeared amid the mud and shell fire. So, three powerful memorials around which the nation’s grief could find its expression emerged between 1919 and 1921.

Unveiling the Cenotaph on November 11th 1919

First came the non-religious Cenotaph –– meaning empty grave –– in 1919, designed by Edwin Lutyens and built temporarily for the British Peace Day Parade on the 19th July. This proved such a success with the public that Lutyens was again commissioned to build a Portland Stone version –– erected permanently in Whitehall –– for the Armistice Parade on the 11th November 1920. Inscribed on the Cenotaph were the words ‘The Glorious Dead’, something not permitted in the IWGC Cemeteries abroad; there were no glorious dead, just the dead.

The second was the Unknown Soldier, an idea for which French and British veterans can both claim some degree of ownership.  Since the late autumn of 1914, the removal of the dead from the Western Front had been outlawed. The French government, who had total control over war dead of all nations in French territory, reinforced this rule with new regulations in January 1919.

The French authorities only permitted the dead to be dug up and moved to central and convenient locations along the former front on land they would purchase for the purpose of the new war cemeteries. For years, British and French veterans had been lobbying for such a symbol, but the rules, along with the logistics of how it would be done, had frustrated attempts to make it happen.

The French Unknown Soldier arrives at the Arc de Triomphe

In 1920, French veterans threatened to dig up a dead soldier themselves, transport his remains to Paris and block the passage of the heart of Leon Gambetta to the Pantheon. Gambetta had tirelessly campaigned  for the return from Germany of the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost in the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian or Franco-German War. 

Seeing the way public debate and the French veterans were moving, the French government swiftly enacted legislation to allow temporary removal of bodies from the front and the selection of one each from Britain and France to be removed and commemorated as the ‘Unknown Soldier’ in London and Paris.

On November 11th 1920, war veterans and the general public gathered along the route and in front of Lutyens’ new Cenotaph in Whitehall as the British Unknown Soldier was conveyed to his new resting place in Westminster Abbey. There were similar scenes in Paris as the French Unknown Soldier was interred under the Arc de Triomphe, which commemorates the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

The third and probably the most evocative memorial was the Poppy, which first appeared on lapels for Armistice Day on November 11th1921. The Poppy symbolised rebirth, reappearing without fail along the Western Front every spring and early summer regardless of the general destruction. 

A boxed Croix de Guerre with a violet standing in for the bluet –Private Collection

The Blue Cornflower –– bluet in French –– was just as resilient was adopted by French veterans and the French public in much the same way as their British brethren-in-suffering. The Poppy was mentioned in the iconic poem ‘In Flanders’ Fields’, composed by Canadian poet John McCrae on 3rdMay 2015, just after the Second Battle of Ypres. Major McCrae was the Medical Officer of the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery.

In Flanders’ Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Anna Guérin née Boule was born in France in 1878. She married a French Colonial administrator named Rabanit, who was posted to Madagascar in 1898, where Anna taught local people French and founded the École Rabanit. Her school became known as one of the best in Madagascar and Madame Boulle was decorated by the French government in 1907, the year she and her husband divorced. 

In 1910, Madame Boulle married a colonial judge named Eugène Guérin. Shortly afterwards, Judge Guérin was posted to The Sudan but Anna Guérin went with her two daughters to London, where she worked for the Alliance Française promoting French culture for four years. Amongst other initiatives, Guérin arranged short theatrical plays or tableaux about famous French women like Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette and Josephine Bonaparte.

German Infantry advancing towards Mons in in August 1914 –– IWM

With the start of the war in 1914, Guérin set up a charity to look after French widows and orphans. She took her tableaux of famous French woman from history to the USA. America being neutral, ships still sailed to and from France. She criss-crossed the USA by train raising funds for French widows and orphans and French veterans demobilised without any form of pension.

As America was neutral, Guérin could not be seen to promote the French war effort. So she concentrated on her historic female characters and French history, particularly the part the French had played in the American War of Independence.  As part of the shows, she sold poppies to raise funds for her charity in France. The poppies were also sold by her dedicated American followers to publicise her arrival in town for a pageant and became known as Poppy Days or Drives. 

With America joining the war in April 1917, Guérin’s theatrical tableaux were better able to fully describe the awful conditions of widows and orphans and the life at the front. She was now accompanied by a decorated French officer. She wore a military-style dress modelled on a French Army uniform and became known as ‘the greatest of all war speakers’. Every summer, Guérin returned to France despite the threat to Allied and neutral shipping alike from German submarines.

Anna Guérin (right) selling her poppies in 1921

On 2nd September 1921, Guérin received permission from the Grand Old Army of the Republic –– then the prominent veterans group, dating back to the American Civil War –– to use its annual Decoration Day in May as her annual Flanders Poppy Day.  Decoration Day marked the day the veterans of the civil war decorated graves with flowers, usually daisies. On 2nd September 1921, Guérin persuaded The American Legion to adopt her proposal for an Inter-Allied Poppy Day. 

In London in August, she had met with Colonel Edward Heath of the newly-formed British Legion, who was enthusiastic about Guérin’s Inter-Allied Poppy Day but hampered by the organisation’s lack of funds. Guérin said that she would lend the British Legion thousands of Poppies to sell that November. 

The British Legion sent a delegation to Paris to check Guérin’s bona fides and that she had sufficient financial resources to fund the loan. That October, the American Legion withdrew its support of the poppy as a symbol because it was not an indigenous American species and readopted the daisy. As history records, however, Britain, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand did support Anna Guérin and her Poppy project.

A WW1-era Canadian postcard promoting Victory Bonds

In time, November 11thbecame Poppy Day, although it was officially known as Armistice Day or, as British Legion President Field Marshal The 1stEarl Haig named it, Remembrance Day. The British Legion sold all of the Poppies lent by Guérin, repaid her and, sadly, consigned her to history. The British Legion took over Poppy Day and sold Poppies manufactured by disabled ex-servicemen and women.

Anna Guérin during the 1914-1918 War

The American Legion readopted the Poppy in 1922 and Anna Guérin sent millions of her Poppies to the USA where they were sold to raise funds for war veterans in need. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa initially continued to buy their Poppies from Anna Guérin whilst at the same time having their own Poppies manufactured by disabled war veterans. By the end of the 1920s, her clients were making their own Poppies and Guérin had largely vanished from the public stage.

As her biographer Heather Anne Johnson notes in a timeline of Anna Guérin’s life, the Northampton Mercury newspaper in England published an article on November 5th1937 noting that “It was a French woman, Madame Guerin, who first thought that the poppy would make an appropriate emblem to sell in aid of ex-servicemen in distress.”.  

Anna Guérin died in Paris in April 1961, her transformation of the Poppy into an iconic symbol of The Great War and other wars since largely forgotten.  The Royal British Legion acknowledged Anna Guérin in a Twitter post on April 8th2021 and has devoted a page to her on its website. As the old proverb goes, better late than never.

Dick Merry

Extracts taken from the  book, The Great War in the Argonne Forest, by Richard Merry , ISBN 1526773260 available from all major booksellers and soon in paperback. 

Anna Guérin material courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson. 

You might also like…