The Other Poppies of War

04/11/2012 23:31 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

"In Flanders the poppies blow." So wrote Canadian soldier, physician, and poet John McCrae (1872-1918) who served as an army medical officer during the First World War. He had noticed that red poppies grew readily in the disturbed soil around the graves of soldiers who had died in battle. Red poppies can still be seen growing in abundance in fields around the World War I cemeteries in Belgium and France during the summer.

It is therefore fitting that red poppies, or at least the artificial paper ones, are used to commemorate those in the armed forces who have sacrificed their lives during conflicts past and present. In Britain, the poppies are sold by the Royal British Legion to raise funds to provide assistance for service personnel and veterans who need help. The charity's 2012 Poppy Appeal, launched nationally on Wednesday 24 October, aims to raise £42million for this purpose.

We can hardly have failed to notice that every year between the launch of the appeal and Remembrance Sunday it has become de rigueur for every British politician and TV presenter to be seen wearing a poppy when in public or on TV. The poppies not only symbolise our gratitude for the sacrifice of service men and women and but also identify us as supporters of the charity and its aims.

The red poppies that McCrae saw in Flanders fields and the ones we see today in England and throughout Europe are a species known as Papaver rhoeus. They are generally regarded as agricultural weeds and serve little useful purpose apart from beautifying the countryside. However, they are related to another species of poppy that is not only valuable as an agricultural crop but has also played and still does play a significant role in war. That poppy is Papaver somniferum, better known as the opium poppy.

It was this species of poppy and the opium extracted from it that led to the two Opium Wars fought between Britain and China (1839-1842) and Britain and France against China (1856-1860). The wars were fought over the commercial rights to the Chinese opium trade. China was defeated in both wars.

Yet although the opium poppy was the cause of these two wars, it has also had a highly beneficial impact on war over the past hundred years or so. This is because the poppy contains eighty or so organic chemicals known as alkaloids, two of which are morphine and codeine. The compounds are extracted from opium resin or poppy straw using a series of extraction and purification steps involving water and organic solvents.

As I point out in the chapter 'Killing the Pain' in my bookGas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War, morphine was the analgesic of choice for relieving severe and persistant pain during the Great War in which McCrae fought. There are numerous references in medical reports published during the war of the use of the drug to relieve the suffering of soldiers, sailors and airmen in the war.

As well as morphine, opium, that is the dried resin of the opium poppy, and diamorphine were also commonly used as painkillers in the war. Diamorphine, more widely known as heroin, is prepared by the reaction of morphine with the organic chemical acetic anhydride.

These analgesics, however, have severe adverse side-effects if not used sparingly. These include blurred vision, confusion, loss of appetite, vomiting, respiratory depression, and severe constipation. Moreover, they are highly addictive and require higher and higher doses to maintain the same effect.

Even so, opium poppy extracts and their chemical derivatives were and still are invaluable in relieving the suffering of the wounded. It is therefore safe to say that both the opium poppy and the red poppy, or least the artificial variety, have been employed to bring immense relief to members of the armed forces, albeit in totally different ways.

Michael Freemantle's latest book, Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War, is available to purchase here.

His previous book, An Introduction to Ionic Liquids, is available here.