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Poppies remind a nation to remember veterans

  • Story Highlights
  • Poppies are worn in the UK to remember armed service veterans
  • Poppies bloomed on the European battlefields in World War I
  • The Poppy Factory makes the bright red flower wreaths for the UK
  • Disabled veterans or disabled family members work at the factory
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By Todd Baxter
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(CNN) -- The bright red flowers started as a simple idea in 1922 and have grown into a sight that cannot be missed at this time of year in the UK.

The Poppy Factory employs disabled veterans and mentally or physically disabled relatives of veterans.

Steven West, whose father served in World War II, has made poppies for 23 years.

"It's very moving when you go to a cemetery and you see all these wreaths lined up from people who placed poppy wreaths on war memorials or cemeteries," says poppy wreath maker Steven West.

"It's very important because it remembers those who have gone before, and given their lives so that we can have the freedom we have today."

But it's not just at memorials and in cemeteries; everywhere you look, a profusion of plastic poppies appear on the lapels of people walking down the street, on TV news anchors, sports stars, and even on the fronts of taxicabs.

From the end of October until November 11, known as Remembrance Day in the UK and Veterans Day in the U.S., wearing the poppy is all about remembering those who have served in the armed forces.

The Poppy Factory is where the artificial poppies seen in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are made. Even the poppy wreaths the queen lays down in honor of the veterans come from this factory. Video Watch the poppy makers talk about their work »

Why poppies? Because on the battlefields in Belgium and northern France in World War I, the only thing that grew through the devastation were poppies.

They were made famous by the poem "In Flanders Fields" written by a Canadian military doctor, Lt. Col. John McCrae, after a slain comrade was buried:

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row ..."

The flowery remembrances of the dead also help those who survived the wars.

"In 1922 ... our founder, Maj. George Howson, who had served on the Western Front during the first world war, had the idea of setting up a charity to provide proper paid employment for disabled ex-service people who had served in the war with him," said Bill Kay, general manager of the Poppy Factory.

In the early days, most of the employees were amputees from the wars, so the plastic poppies were designed so they could be assembled with one hand.

"For November 2008, we have made 38 million Remembrance poppies and roughly 100,000 wreaths," Kay said.

The money made from the donations given for each of the poppies goes to The Royal British Legion to provide financial, social and emotional support to former and current members of the armed forces and their dependants, and to provide jobs for those making the poppies.

Today, 43 employees work in the factory, and there's also a network of 80 to 90 people who make the bulk of the poppies from their homes. Some of the employees are disabled veterans, and some are mentally or physically disabled family members of veterans.

Although they make the poppies all year round, this time of year is particularly special to workers.

"Every one I do, I know is going to someone who is remembering someone who has died in the war or remembering colleagues who died in the war," West, the wreath maker, said as he worked. He has been at the Poppy Factory 23 years, and his father served during World War II.

"It's very important to myself, and it's important to my family members as well," said Peter Biggs, who has worked at the factory since last January. "As an ex-serviceman, this time of year is always very, very much on your mind," he said with a catch in his throat.


"I also think about the youngsters today, those serving in Afghanistan, who are doing such a difficult task, facing an enemy that is basically unseen, whereas in time gone by we faced an enemy that we knew, who wore uniforms." he said.

After looking through some photographs of himself serving in the Falklands, Biggs continued: "We must not forget the fact that there are more people than our own that get wounded in a war. There is no winners in a war, there are only ever losers. A lesson we still need to learn, but we are moving towards it ... hopefully."

All About World War IWorld War IIVeterans' Affairs

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