History Detective

Poppy Ladies: Moina Michael and Anna Guérin

Episode Summary

Have you ever wondered how the poppy became the international symbol of remembrance? It was the work of 2 women: Moina Michael and Anna Guérin. Learn their fascinating story in this episode.

Episode Notes

Have you ever wondered how the poppy became the international symbol of remembrance? It was the work of 2 women: Moina Michael and Anna Guérin. Learn their fascinating story in this episode.

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Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history. Before I get started, I just wanted to let you know that I have just released a book called History, Her Story, Our Story, Inspirational Women Who Shaped Our World. You can find a link to buy the Kindle or paperback in the show notes. But today we are learning about two inspirational women Moina Michael and Anna Guérin and the story of how the poppy became an international symbol of remembrance


When you think of the poppy flower, you probably immediately think of the commemoration of soldiers, whether it be for Remembrance Day on the 11th of November, or the commemoration of ANZAC Day here in Australia and New Zealand. For as long as I can remember, the poppy has always been a symbol of the commemoration of soldiers. But it was not always this way. The fact that it is now an international symbol of commemoration, was thanks to the efforts of two women, Moina Michael and Anna Guérin, who championed the use of the poppy to both remember the soldiers who had died in the war and as a way to raise money for victims of the war.


Moina Michael was inspired to wear a poppy to remember fallen soldiers after she had read the poem In Flanders Fields, by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McRae. Both the opening and closing line of this poem mention how the poppies now grow in what was once a violent WWI battlefield. Moina was inspired to write a poem in response that was called “We shall keep the faith”. 


As well as writing this poem, Moina vowed to wear a poppy in remembrance of the soldiers who lost their lives in World War I.


Monia Belle Michael was born in 1869, which means she was 49 years old when she came up with this idea. She was also an Education professor at the University of Georgia. During the war she decided to take some unpaid leave from her job so she could volunteer for the YMCA. Her job was to help organise transportation of the bodies of soldier who had died back to their families. You can imagine that she met a lot of grieving families in this work.


One day, there was a conference for the members of the YMCA and she was donated $10, she used that money to purchase 25 silk poppies that people could wear as a symbol of remembrance. These poppies were incredibly popular with the delegates. A little later, at another YMCA conference, that had people who were representing many different YMCAs all over the world, Moina presented her idea and shared her poem and her idea that poppies should be used to commemorate soldiers. This is where she crossed paths with the secretary of the French YMCA, Anna Guérin. Anna was also an educator and ran a school in the French colony of Madagascar. When the war broke out, she began travelling around America doing speaking tours. 


Anna decided to sell poppies to raise money for widows, orphans and disabled veterans and their families. She named these fundraising days “Poppy Days”. Madame Guérin then approached other Veterans’ organisations in countries like the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and encouraged them to use the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. Australia held its first poppy day in April 1921, but there was a slight hiccup when the poppies they were going to sell arrived late. The next year in April 1922, Anna was planning to visit Australia but was unable to come. She wrote to the president of the Australian Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League- we now know this organisation as the Returned Services League or the RSL. In her letter she proposed that families make poppy wreaths and lay them on the graves of fallen soldiers. She suggests that the poppies be made from waterproof material so that they last longer. Exactly 100 years ago, in 1923, the Poppy Day fundraising was changed to November to coincide with Remembrance Day on the 11th of November. For these first few years, all of the funds that were raised in Australia were being sent back to France to Anna Guerin’s French Children’s League Charity. However, in 1925, many of the RSL branches thought that it was better to raise the money for local Australian soldiers who were suffering from injuries or may be destitute.


I think it was important to note that although Moina Michael and Anna Guerin were instrumental in creating and spreading the idea of wearing a poppy to remember the fallen soldiers and to use to funds raised from the sales to help out people affected by the war, they did not do this alone. It was the efforts of many hundreds and thousands of people who have volunteered in towns and cities all over the world to sell these poppies. And you know what, for a very long time it was mainly women who were volunteering their time to make and sell poppies, organise fundraising and ensure that the money went to the families who needed it. So, thank you to the original poppy ladies, but also thank you to the countless women from all corners of the world who have volunteered to sell poppies to help out families and people who have been impacted by war.


At this point I would normally play you an original song about Moina and Anna, but instead I am going to play a very special song that usually signifies the end of the day’s activities in miliary tradition, and these days you will hear it at Remembrance and ANZAC Day ceremonies and military funerals. Here is The Last Post.


This Kelly Chase, on the Case.


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See you next time.


I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this podcast is being recorded today. I pay my respects to the elders and knowledge holders past present and emerging.