Today is Remembrance Sunday and you know what that means, you had better be wearing a British Legion red poppy or you’re a loony lefty traitor worse than Jeremy Corbyn meeting with the IRA and Hezbollah. The poppy has become so ingrained in the culture in the UK that it makes the news if anyone in the public eye, especially politicians, are seen in public without one on the run up to Remembrance Day and opens them to criticisms of hating either the UK or the soldiers that died in muddy fields to defend the country. Historically the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for the soldiers that died in the First World War and was quickly adopted by the Royal British Legion in 1921 but what this symbol represents has skewed slightly in the years since then, and now that this meaning has been overtaken this has influenced a desire to show respect and remembrance in other ways.
The inspiration for using the poppy as a symbol of remembrance can be traced back to the poem “In Flanders Fields” that was written by Canadian physician John McCrae on the 3rd of May 1915, the day after he witnessed the death of his friend. The poem refers to the poppy’s growing amongst the graves of war victims in Belgium and is from the point of view of the fallen soldiers. Moina Michael, a volunteer working with the American YMCA Overseas War Secretaries Organization, was so inspired by the poem that she published her own entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith” in 1918. Afterwards she vowed to always wear a poppy in respect of those that fought in and assisted with the war effort and she would go on to campaign to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol in America, this was successful and by 1920 the National American Legion adopted the flower as their official symbol of remembrance.
A key figure in bringing the poppy to the other allied nations was Madame Guerin. Noted at the time as one of the greatest of all war speakers she would raise funds for the ‘Food for France’ organisation as well as separately for French widows and orphans, veterans and the American Red Cross. The poppy was first linked to her when she was tasked by the French government with travelling to the US to found the American branch of the ‘American-Franco Children’s League’ in an effort to raise funds to help orphans in the war torn regions of France. This organisation used the poppy as its emblem, and she would start holding poppy days in which she would distribute paper poppies in exchange for donations. Her work would take her to Canada, Newfoundland and eventually to the UK in 1921. Here she approached the British Legion and explained her plans to have an ‘Inter-Allied Poppy Day’. They were sceptical at first but came around to the idea after Madame Guerin paid for the British Legions poppies herself, vastly helping the extremely poor organisation at the time. The rest is history, the poppies were incredibly popular in 1921 and so from 1922 onwards British veterans made Remembrance Poppies at The Poppy Factory to be sold every year to fund the British Legion. Madame Guerin was very rarely mentioned in the British press and when they did nod to the original makers of the poppy, they usually referred to them as French “peasants”, further obscuring her incredibly important contributions to the poppy movement.
As well as for remembrance of military personnel, the yearly poppy appeal is to raise funds for charity that supports both previous and current personnel of the armed forces. As stated on the British Legion website –
‘We are the country’s largest Armed Forces charity, with 235,000 members, 110,000 volunteers and a network of partners and charities; helping us give support wherever and whenever it’s needed.’
This has caused some to feel uncomfortable with what the poppy has come to represent. The poppy appeal is directly sponsored by companies that profit from war such as BAE Systems and it has built a highly charged nationalist aura around the wearing of the poppy. It’s not only for remembrance of those lost due to wars it is to show how much you support the troops. An appeal to protect those who were victims of their own state’s militarism into a jingoist competition to show who loves their country most. For those critical of the way the army has been deployed over the last few decades this can make the symbol of the poppy a bit of a mixed legacy, and difficult to weld with your own political views. .
In 2010 a group of Army Veterans sent an open letter in which they complained that the Poppy Appeal had become ‘excessive’ and ‘garish’. They said it was being used to gather support for military campaigns and to pressure people into wearing them. A few years later the same group held a separate remembrance service by walking to The Cenotaph with a banner that read “Never Again” and laid a wreath of white poppies to acknowledge not only the military cost of war but the civilian cost. They wore t-shirts brandished with the phrase “War is Organised Murder” on them, in an action far closer to the true, original meaning of the poppy. This is a quote from Harry Patch, the last survivor of the First World War.
The white poppy has been used since the 30’s as an alternative symbol of remembrance for all victims of war and to reject the glorification of militarism and its consequences. Nowadays in the UK the Peace Pledge Union distributes white poppies and holds an alternative remembrance service called the ‘National Alternative Remembrance Ceremony’. As they state on their website –
‘White poppies commemorate all victims of all wars, including wars that are still being fought. This includes people of all nationalities. It includes both civilians and members of armed forces. Today over 90% of people killed in warfare are civilians.’
With the red poppy becoming a symbol for support for the harmful military industrial complex, having alternative ways to show respect to those that have lost their lives due to conflict are especially important. The last justifiable war that the UK has taken part in was the fight against fascism in the Second World War, most subsequent involvement in wars have been about power or money. As a society we should reject the endless wars that serve the interests of the rich.
To support the peace pledge union and find out how to get involved check out their website here.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash