I’ve seen poppy pins everywhere this week – when I went into town yesterday they were being sold on every street corner, and it was a rare to see a coat or jumper unadorned by one. I’ve bought one, as that’s what you’re meant to do, but I’m not sure if I agree with the act of wearing one. This doubt came into mind when I was listening to a Radio 2 debate programme, in which the poppies that I’ve grown up wearing were discouraged.
Firstly, we wear poppies because those who fought in Belgium and northern France noticed how persistently the flower bloomed in the area. Very sadly, the bones of the dead are still collected as the farmers plough such fields. The poppy became a recurring image in the war poetry that resulted from the combat, particularly in John MacRae’s In Flanders Fields:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The concept of selling artifical poppies began in America and soon spread to France and Britain. The British Legion approved of the idea, and ordered for at least 1.5 million to be produced by November 11, 1921. They sold out almost instantly. By the end of the 20th century the British Legion were producing annually over 32 million ‘lapel’ poppies, 100,000 wreaths and 400,000 Remembrance crosses. In the week before Remembrance Day poppies are everywhere, particularly on television. Poppies are nationalist and patriotic symbols, and their prominence may seem to suggest that they are innocuous and accepted emblems, but this isn’t entirely accurate.
To begin with, poppies connote political connections (that’s rarely a good thing). In Northern Ireland, for example, it became regarded as a Protestant Loyalist symbol because of its connection with British patriotism. Some also say that poppies endorse military power and justify war. If the dead are said to have ‘sacrificed’ their lives, then why did we fall back into war? Why can’t we stop occupying other countries and bombing and killing children? It doesn’t really make much sense, at least not to me.
Ever since 1933, white poppies appeared on Armistice Day (called Rememberance day after World War Two). The white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War – a war in which many of the white poppy supporters lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers – but a challenge to the continuing drive to war. I prefer these associations considerably more than those of the standard red poppies.
My grandfather refused to be involved in war for reasons of peace, but on the other side of my family the brute force of conflict is to be seen up a few generations from me. There’s a family photo of my great Auntie Jean with her husband (I hope I recall correctly) among others. When my brother saw it for the first time, he asked, as children do, what was wrong with his face. As an RAF pilot he had been involved in a plane crash, consequently facing around a hundred plastic surgery operations. I can’t imagine the situations he went through, nor his family, and I wish that I had been able to meet him.
Today I haven’t worn a poppy. I’ve sat in loungewear working and reading, and I haven’t left the house except to go to the shop opposite. However, that by no means implies that I don’t remember those who died in war. That applies to those still dying today too. I not only mourn the loss of our present soldiers, but pity their choice to go to war, and the fact that the opportunity was there. I also remember those on the so-called “enemy” side who have died innocently.
I don’t think that poppies shouldn’t be worn, but I certainly hope that their associations and messages will change. People shouldn’t be abused if they don’t wear poppies either, as long as they have their own way of remembering the dead. Rather than “never forget”, which the majority of us will not, the message held in poppies should be “never again”. I wish love to all those who lost relatives in war and are remembering them today.