ONE of the oldest surviving First World War poppies - plucked from the killing fields of Flanders in 1915 - has been found in the diary of a former soldier.

Len Smith, of Woodford Green, was 24 when he picked the delicate flower from the ground in no man's land while serving with the 7th City of London Regiment in Belgium.

Mr Smith, a sniper and battlefield artist, pressed the poppy in to his diary for safe keeping - perfectly preserving it for over 90 years.

The plant, and the illustrated war diary compiled by the infantryman during his service until 1919, have since been published as a book - Drawing Fire - complete with the pictures he drew while on the front line.

His great-nephew Dave Mason, of Montalt Road, Woodford Green, said Mr Smith's diary is a testament to his bravery, talent and stoicism in the face of constant danger.

He said: "He signed up just a month after the outbreak of the war in 1914 and only came home in 1919. He loved flowers and wildlife so I suppose he just picked the poppy up as a momento.

"He was a commercial artist before the war, so the army used to send him out into no man's land to sit in a shell hole and draw the enemy positions and pop off any soldiers who appeared.

"One time he drew a picture of a tree near a German trench. The engineers tunnelled up to it at night and replaced it with a look-out post which was exactly like his drawing.

"On another occasion he drew a picture of enemy positions at Vimy Ridge which were used prior to an attack there during the Battle of the Somme."

Mr Smith, who returned home briefly in 1917 to marry his childhood sweetheart Jessie, was gased and suffered from severe trench foot and trench fever during the war but, remarkably, managed to avoid serious injury.

Mr Mason said: "One of the closest times he came to being killed was in 1916 when he was sitting on the edge of a trench chatting with a friend when a shell fell, killing 13 men directly next to them. He got a small wound from a shell splinter.

"On a seperate occasion he and another soldier had to dig their way out of a dug out which had collapsed on them after a shell landed, killing the two men on top."

Mr Smith returned to his work as a commercial artist after the war - providing work for greetings cards, adverts and even drawing a special map for the Queen's coronation procession in 1953. He died of cancer in 1974.

In an extract from his diaries added while he was stationed near Vermelles in northern France, he wrote: "There were not any great doings at this part of the line - with much caution one could even peep over the top and it was lovely to see groups of red poppies among the infrequent patches of grass.

"Considering the numerous shell holes they were very numerous and made a very brave display – I know they thrilled me intently."

Drawing Fire can be bought at The Village Bookshop in Woodford Green, or from: