As this year will mark the centenary anniversary since the outbreak of the First World War, perhaps it is a good time to reconsider how we remember WW1 and other conflicts. We are in a situation where the traditional British Legion red poppy has, to all intents and purposes, become the only widely acceptable and recognisable symbol of remembrance. This is undeniably problematic.
Every year in the weeks leading up to November 11, those in the public eye are required to wear a red poppy or risk facing the wrath of the self-proclaimed poppy police who scour TV channels in search of politicians or C-list celebrities who are not wearing a poppy, tweeting abuse in order to ‘shame’ them for their decision. In 2013, Charlene White hit the headlines after receiving insults on social media after she appeared on screen without the poppy, with many of the insults focusing on her race. This is not an isolated case. Wearing a red poppy has become much more than just a symbol of remembrance – it is patriotic, indicative of a certain militaristic political stance and, worst of all, wearing one has become an obligation.
One such alternative is the white poppy. White poppies date back to 1926 when The Women’s Co-operative Guild, many of whom who had lost their husbands during the war, asked the Legion to print “No More War” in the middle of their red poppies. This request was ignored, but by 1933 The Women’s Guild and The Peace Pledge Union distributed white poppies as an alternative to the hegemonic red poppy. Their intention was to remember casualties of all wars whilst also campaigning for peace. The red poppy, they felt, exclusively commemorated British soldiers.
The white poppy still exists today and remains controversial: many who oppose its use claim that the traditional red poppy already encompasses the sentiments claimed for the white poppy, such as “remembering all victims of war”. But this argument seems to miss the point; the white poppy is a good way of getting individual to remember who would otherwise be turned off by some of the patriotic and military associations that the red poppy has.
The red poppy is, after all, a direct reference to WW1 and, more specifically, a certain revisionist history that positions the deaths of British soldiers in the First World War and other wars as “a sacrifice they made for us”. It is for this reason that Harry Patch, the last survivor of WW1 who died at the age of 111 in 2009, described Remembrance Day as “just show business” in his memoir. There is now nobody left alive who truly remembers the futility of the war that sustains our patriotic imagination.
Perhaps there is a wider problem with our acts of remembrance. David Cameron has recently called for this year’s Remembrance Day centenary to be “like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations”, but street parties and bunting seem a bit inappropriate to commemorate the deaths of 16 million people. The way we remember all lives were affected by war, be it soldiers or innocent bystanders, should combine individual reflection with communal remembrance. The red poppy should be optional and the white poppy should not be controversial and, above all, remembrance should be about remembering and nothing else.