Politi­cis­ing the poppy

It has come to de­fine na­tional re­mem­brance and com­mem­o­ra­tion, but does the poppy carry too much con­tro­ver­sial bag­gage for the 21st cen­tury? Robin Hors­fall ar­gues that the true mean­ing of this en­dur­ing sym­bol is at risk of be­ing dis­torted, or for­got­ten alt

History of War - - CONTENTS -

Robin Hors­fall dis­cusses the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the sym­bol of re­mem­brance

The first ‘Poppy Ap­peal’ was car­ried out by the Bri­tish Le­gion in Novem­ber 1921 and raised over £106,000 to help World War I veterans with em­ploy­ment and hous­ing. In 1922 Ma­jor Ge­orge How­son set up the Poppy Fac­tory in or­der to em­ploy dis­abled ex-ser­vice­men.

The red poppy is a sym­bol of Re­mem­brance, a badge worn by all on 11 Novem­ber to com­mem­o­rate Ar­mistice Day – the end of World War I. The red poppy car­ries a mes­sage of great sad­ness and loss and re­minds us all of the evils of war.

Those civil­ians and ser­vice­men who be­lieve that the red poppy in some way glo­ri­fies war and those who took part in wars have mis­un­der­stood the mes­sage. I would ar­gue that Lieu­tenant Colonel John Mc­crae’s lament asks the pop­pies to remember the dead – a cry from be­neath the soil for those still liv­ing to remember.

In re­cent years many po­lit­i­cal groups and in­sti­tu­tions have at­tempted to use the pow­er­ful emo­tional sym­bol­ism of the poppy to draw at­ten­tion to their own be­liefs or de­sires. They have tried to de­stroy or di­vide the unity of Re­mem­brance Day by cor­rupt­ing the mes­sage. Ser­vice­men of­fended by these moves have in turn re­sorted to an­gry and ag­gres­sive re­sponses. Some have be­rated and in­tim­i­dated pub­lic fig­ures and tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ters for not wear­ing a poppy. Sports­men are com­pelled by pub­lic pres­sure to wear them on their sports gear.

All these peo­ple miss the point be­cause they at­tempt to force their be­liefs onto oth­ers. They mis­rep­re­sent the in­tended mes­sage and claim own­er­ship of the red poppy for their own spe­cial be­liefs. As a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult char­ac­ter I would refuse to wear any poppy if some­one at­tempted to co­erce me.

The Peace Pledge Union claims there are sup­posed to be three el­e­ments to the mean­ing of white pop­pies and say, “They rep­re­sent re­mem­brance for all vic­tims of war, a com­mit­ment to peace and a chal­lenge to at­tempts to glam­or­ise or cel­e­brate war.” This state­ment im­plies that this mes­sage is in some way dif­fer­ent to the orig­i­nal. The wear­ers of a white poppy are in ef­fect only sup­port­ing the orig­i­nal mes­sage. Some might ar­gue, how­ever, that they choose to place them­selves on a su­pe­rior level of moral­ity. Peace pledgers might make the same claim against war veterans.

A white poppy, the sham­rock poppy, even a reg­i­men­tal poppy all miss the point. There are no divi­sions be­tween the dead. They are all laid in the soil, some­times to­gether in reg­i­men­tal graves but of­ten in mass graves where their na­tion, rank and re­li­gion are un­known: all one in death, all one in the soil with only the red poppy to mark the con­ti­nu­ity of life. Those who want to ap­ply the poppy only to sol­diers and as­so­ciate them­selves with acts of hero­ism or glory could also be ac­cused of cre­at­ing divi­sion.

The red poppy is not just about sol­diers. The poppy doesn’t iden­tify a na­tion, a re­li­gion, a so­cial rank, a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor, a cow­ard or a gen­der. The red poppy only asks us to remember those who died be­cause of war. This in­cludes chil­dren who were sat in a school when a bomb hit or those who died of star­va­tion and dis­ease.

Poets speak of “the sac­ri­fice of he­roes who laid down their lives”. Those of us who truly ex­pe­ri­enced war know that sol­diers do not lay down their lives, nor do they sac­ri­fice their lives – they lose them.

Wars are started by na­tional lead­ers but they are fought by sol­diers and suf­fered by ev­ery­one else. The sol­dier’s maxim is “There are old sol­diers and bold sol­diers but there are no old bold sol­diers.” The men who served in the lat­ter years of the two world wars were al­most all con­scripts. They went be­cause they had to.

For my­self there is only one sym­bolic poppy – the all-en­com­pass­ing red poppy whose mes­sage is, “Remember the dead, remember the fallen, remember the horror and the loss and try – try very hard not to do it again.”

Robin Hors­fall served in Sec­ond Bat­tal­ion The Para­chute Reg­i­ment and the SAS for ten years, be­fore work­ing in se­cu­rity roles around the world. To­day he is an in­spi­ra­tional after-dinner speaker and writer. His book The Words of the Wise Old

Para­trooper is avail­able on Kin­dle

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