Lynne Berry and sister-in-law Margaret Knight launched the 5000 Poppies Project on Remembrance Day last year, in part to remember their own fathers’ war service.
But the project’s target was immediately exceeded and the creators have been steadily upgrading it ever since.
“We talk about it being an Australian project, but I don’t want to limit it in any way. War is war, and tragedy is suffered wherever you’re from. The poppy is a universal symbol of remembrance. It’s about the tribute and the sentiment.” — Lynne Berry, 5000 Poppies founder
“I’m hoping to end up with 60,000, which will match the number of Australian soldiers that died in the First World War,” said Ms Berry, of Glen Iris. “But in reality it’s going to reach 100,000.”
The plan is to turn Federation Square into a “carpet of red” when the poppies are laid out next year with the help of acclaimed landscape designer Phillip Johnson, an ambition backed by former Premier Ted Baillieu, who chairs Victoria’s Anzac Commemoration Committee.
The women’s fathers both served in World War II – Stan Knight was a private in the British Army, while Ms Berry’s father, Wal Beasley, was an Aussie army sergeant who served in New Guinea.
“We planned to ‘yarn bomb’ my father’s tree in the Avenue of Honour at the Shrine of Remembrance with 120 poppies,” Ms Berry continued. “We wanted people to see it and understand that it was about honouring the fallen. Looking back, we were naïve at setting such a small target. We just couldn’t comprehend how quickly it would grow. I mean, it grew fast.”
So fast, in fact, that knitted poppies started arriving from all round the world. Contributions include tattered and tapestry versions, with some contributors sending hundreds. New Zealanders have since started their own poppy project in response.
Ms Berry said the project had received next-to-no funding, with contributors paying for their own poppies and postage. The poppies were simple to make, she added, with the youngest contributor just two years of age, the oldest 102.
“I’ve got one woman who has made more than 2000,” she said. “And she’s still going. It’s cathartic. It’s addictive. You make one and then suddenly you’re making a hundred.”
Ms Berry and Ms Knight, who lives at Phillip Island, started the project in June last year and officially launched it on November 11.
“By the launch, we already had the 5000 and a fantastic display at Federation Square,” Ms Berry said. “We realised that this was just too low a number, so we decided to readjust our goal to 25,000 and thought that would be it. It wasn’t.”
Ms Berry said that Mr Baillieu had shown great support for the project.
“He recently said to me that everything else related to the commemoration ceremony has been supported top-level down, while this project has been grass-roots up,” she said proudly.
Responding through a spokesperson, Mr Baillieu said the poppy project “gathers the love and connections of all Australians in honour of the Anzac spirit”. He added: “It has reached into the hearts and minds of all Australians, whose love and connections to the Anzac spirit remain, after 100 years, as emotional as ever.”
Mr Baillieu’s own links to the Great War are deeply personal. His maternal grandfather was an artillery officer who served at Gallipoli and was killed on the Western Front in 1917 when Mr Baillieu’s mother was barely three years old. Mr Baillieu visited the peninsula to visit his grandfather’s memorial six years ago and delighted in taking a dip in the Mediterranean as the troops had done almost a century before.
Ms Berry said the poppy project had grown ‘organically’ into a massive community outpouring.
“Hamilton Library in the southern Grampians got on board early and did a fantastic display of around 1300 poppies for Anzac Day this year,” she said.
Ann-Maree Eckersley, an events co-ordinator at Federation Square, said the project had surprised her.
“From little things, big things really can grow . . . I think what has taken us all by surprise is just how personal it has become to everyone.”
Ms Berry said that while the focus from the outset was crocheted and knitted poppies, other contributors were taking a different approach.
“The tatters guild are making tattered poppies, the knitters guild are doing knitted poppies and the tapestry guild are, you guessed it, doing tapestry poppies,” she said. “Some I’ve received are works of art in themselves.”
Such has been the escalation in interest that Ms Berry quit full-time work recently in order to keep the project on track.
The state president of the Returned and Services League of Australia, Major General David McLachlan, hailed the project as a meaningful addition to Anzac commemorations.
“It provides people today with a connection to the events of the past, and allows them to honour the sacrifice of those that served, and those that have served since,” he said.
Inspired by the wealth of support the project has received, Ms Berry said New Zealand had also taken up the challenge with its own poppy project.
“It took a long while for them to get off the ground but now they’re booming,” she said.
Meanwhile, poppies keep arriving from all over the world — from as far afield as Scotland, as well as England, the US, Canada and Greece. All up, nearly 40,000 have been collected. “It’s going to be HUGE!!!” Ms Berry wrote in a recently emailed update.
“We talk about it being an Australian project, but I don’t want to limit it in any way,” she reflected. “War is war, and tragedy is suffered wherever you’re from. The poppy is a universal symbol of remembrance. It’s about the tribute and the sentiment.”
Ms Berry plans to transport the poppies after next year’s Fed Square showing.
“I’ve already committed to sending it to Western Australia next year for Remembrance Day,” she said. “Ultimately, I’d love for it to end up at the War Memorial in Canberra because I think it belongs there. But if they don’t take it, there are always other possibilities.”