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
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