Red, white and controversial: the Remembrance Day poppy

Remembrance Day poppy

At 11 o’clock this morning, people across the country observed a  two-minute silence in the memory of service-men and -women affected in  all conflicts past and present. In other acts of Remembrance, war memorials up and down the country were adorned with wreaths, uniformed organisations marched in parades, and the names of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice were read out in many church services of Remembrance.

But for many people throughout the Commonwealth, the most striking image of Remembrance Day is undoubtedly the red poppy, and they will therefore mark the occasion by the simple but profound act of wearing one in public. But this is not without its fair share of controversy: in more recent years, the wearing of a red poppy has been a subject of debate among various public figures, while the shift in public perspectives over time (most recently as a result of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq) is thought by some people to have tainted its positive connotations.

The original red poppy appeal began in France during the First World War as a means of raising funds for children orphaned by the war, and was later picked up by the Royal British Legion in 1921. The flower is an apt motif for remembrance of war, given the colossal loss of life in the poppy fields of Flanders – immortalised in John McCrae’s 1915 poem – while their colour is symbolic of the bloodshed of war.

In contrast, the white poppy appeal was launched on Armistice Day (as it was known until after the Second World War) in 1933 by the Women’s Co-operative Guild. The appeal has since been taken over by the Peace Pledge Union, Britain’s oldest secular pacifist organisation. Even though their white poppy was considered a pacifist alternative to the RBL’s red poppy, the PPU are keen to acknowledge that it “was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War… but a challenge to the continuing drive to war”. Moreover, they claim that their project “challenges the war-condoning values of embedded in many traditional remembrance ceremonies” [sic]. Last night’s Festival of Remembrance was presumably no exception to such values. A segment of the annual event was dedicated to the memory and efforts of the RAF’s Bomber Command during the Second World War. In June this year, following the Queen’s inauguration of a memorial for the Bomber Command, a press release from the PPU expressed that they were “troubled by the praise given to [them]” arguing that the memorial’s “sheer scale and attendant ceremony are a clear statement by its supporters, the military and the state that the core activities of Bomber Command – which an unbiased International Court would readily identify as a war crime – are here seen as laudable, heroic and noble”.

From a pacifist perspective the message, for some people, seems clear: the red poppy is no longer a symbol of the sacrifices of war, and has instead become a symbol for war. The act of wearing a red poppy shows compliance with the violence of war and conformity to a state that condones the military’s actions. For this reason, controversy has also surrounded the red poppy in Ireland: it is disregarded by some people because it is seen to be heavily associated with British rule and the military.

Yet I find I have to disagree with the PPU. For me, it seems that the altered connotations of the red poppy exist only as a result of the white poppy’s presence. If anything, the continued presence of conflict only serves to validate, rather than undermine, the original role of the red poppy in the remembrance of war. The sacrifices made by generations of men and women before us carry perhaps an even greater significance nowadays, because the reality of war is constantly brought to our attention by the same sacrifices being made by members of our generation. The Festival of Remembrance is a key example: as a commemoration of the armed forces’ efforts, military involvement is clearly unavoidable, but nowhere in last night’s broadcast did I see any promotion or glorification of war. The festival’s ultimate message shared the symbolism of the red poppy; both featured constantly throughout the evening. The poignancy of the falling poppy petals during the two-minute silence – one petal for every life lost – powerfully illustrates the tragedy of war and the respect and support people have for the armed forces, without condemning nor glorifying their actions.

In fact, this lack of judgement is possibly the main reason there is any controversy over wearing poppies at all. Whether someone chooses to wear a poppy or not, be it of any colour, their decision should be because they want to publicly acknowledge their opinion. In the same way that not everyone chooses to be vocal about their political or religious opinions, not everyone feels the need or desire to publicise their feelings about Remembrance Day. Poppies are first and foremost worn as a mark of respect, but should the absence of a poppy be taken as a sign of disrespect? Jon Snow’s insistence on not wearing a poppy out of principle proved contentious in 2006 when the Channel 4 newsreader admitted that wearing symbols was a matter for his private life, not his professional one. His argument is reasonable: there is a certain amount of pressure for people in the public eye to monitor their behaviour because of the impact they might have on the general public. Calling the incident “poppy fascism” might be a step too far for some people, but Jon Snow aside, how many celebrities or public figures can you recall not wearing a poppy in the weeks before Remembrance Day? Politicians, newsreaders, TV presenters – even the contestants on Strictly Come Dancing are given sparkly jewelled poppies to adorn their costumes with (presumably to avoid diminishing their overall appearance on the dance floor).

Certainly, these people all understand the importance of remembrance and would probably wear them willingly in any case, but Snow’s point raised an interesting issue: is it more respectful to not wear a poppy, than to wear one out of social pressure? Speaking in 2006 in response to Jon Snow’s decision, the former Director of Corporate Communications at the RBL Stuart Gendall said of those in the public eye: “we see [wearing poppies] as a voluntary gesture of support and would never prescribe when and how any member of the public wears one”. And ultimately, Mr. Gendall is right: the decision to wear a poppy should rest with the individual. Regardless of colour, poppies are fundamentally worn to commemorate the same loss of life: wearing a poppy is merely a public show of your respect, not verification of it. As long as people continue to respect this sacrifice on Remembrance Day, whether you choose to wear a poppy or not is irrelevant in the end.

Words: Kat Garvey

Photo: Howard Lake on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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