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Britain's Poppy Wars: The Battle for the Meaning of Remembrance Day in the UK

A brief history of the debate over wearing a poppy.

by Philip Kleinfeld
Nov 11 2015, 6:30pm

Photo via Flickr user wazimu0

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

In 2006, Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow first coined the term "poppy fascism," to describe the pressure he felt an increasingly large section of people in the public eye—newsreaders, politicians, athletes, even X Factor judges—were facing to wear the red flower of remembrance on their jackets.

Snow's defiance and the outrage that followed has become a familiar feature of the yearly news cycle. In 2013, ITV News presenter Charlene White was racially abused after deciding not to wear one on air. This year it was the British-American actress Sienna Miller who faced condemnation online after appearing poppy-less on The Graham Norton Show. Apparently it was tearing her dress.

Though most people aren't forced to explain themselves in front of an outraged nation, the pressure to wear a paper poppy faces everyone that leaves the house in early November. One of the Royal British Legion's recent billboard campaigns in London featured posters with cut-out poppies and a large tagline that said "Something Missing?". According to a YouGov poll from back in 2011, 82 percent of British people supported the prosecution of a man from the banned group Muslims Against Crusades who once burned a poppy on Remembrance Day.

Has it always been like this? If you're wondering if the poppy was a bit less obligatory and ubiquitous when you were younger, then it's probably not just your imagination.

To take the example of soccer, when England played Brazil on November 14, 2009, none of the players wore a poppy and nothing was made of it. Two years later, when FIFA refused to allow the English team to wear one in a friendly match against Spain on November 12, 2012 it sparked national outrage. Prince William demanded a U-turn, the Daily Mail started a campaign and two members of the English Defence League climbed onto the roof of FIFA's HQ in Zurich with a banner saying "how dare FIFA disrespect our war dead and wounded." After "working closely" with the Legion, the FA announced players would "wear training tops with embroidered poppies on match day," "poppy-embossed anthem jackets during the national anthems," and poppies would be placed "on the scoreboards and advertising boards."

But while the remembrance poppy may be triggering more hysteria than ever before, the symbol has always been divisive and hostility towards those that make a stand is not a recent phenomenon.

To understand why requires going back to the beginning, to the poem on which the symbol is based. Many of those that refuse to wear a poppy today like to claim the emblem has been "hijacked." Usually they blame a loose coalition of war-mongering politicians, right-wing newspapers, run-of-the-mill jingoists, and actual fascists. While this may be true to an extent, the assumption that the poppy was, at one stage, a purely neutral, apolitical symbol is not really true.

The first time the poppy was connected to World War I was in May 1915, when Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving on the Western Front, became struck by the sight of red poppies growing over the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders. The contrast he saw between the soldiers that had died and the flowers that were growing formed the basis of his famous poem: In Flanders Field, with the famous first stanza:

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.

But the poem wasn't limited to this observation, however moving. In the third stanza McCrae's message becomes clearer:

Take 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.

As the call to carry on the fight shows, the poem was never meant as a critique of war. Soon after it was published poppies began to be used on war bond posters and recruitment campaigns as a tool of propaganda. From the outset it was always going to be divisive.

Once the war was over and the poppy became an emblem of remembrance, the first dissenters emerged. The idea for an alternative poppy was raised as early as 1926 by the pacifist No More War Movement who wanted the words Haig Fund—a reference to Sir Douglas Haig, a commander during the Battle of the Somme—removed from the centre of the poppy and replaced with "No More War."

A few years later, in 1933, as another war loomed in Europe, the Women's Cooperative Guild created white poppies as a way of explicitly rejecting warfare and commemorating all of war's victims—not just the military as the red poppy did. They may not have been hounded for it on Twitter but many of the women involved lost their jobs and white poppy wreaths were often removed and trashed. And nor did the controversy go away. A few decades later in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher famously expressed her "deep distaste" for the white poppy during Prime Minister's Questions.

The most hostile reaction unsurprisingly took place in Ireland back in the 1920s and 30s. On Remembrance Day in Dublin poppies would often be snatched, depots attacked, flags burnt, and stink bombs let off during the two minute silence. Last year there was controversy as Wigan Athletic winger James Maclean refused to wear a poppy on his match shirt. Being from Derry, he explained, "it would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles—and Bloody Sunday especially—as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII." Taking things a bit further, an Irish bar in Luton made the headlines this year after it refused to serve some people who were wearing poppies on remembrance Sunday. It's fair to say in Ireland the poppy remains a powerful, divisive symbol.

Throughout these controversies the Royal British Legion—the national custodian of remembrance—has been keen to present Remembrance Day and its Poppy Appeal as neutral. On a template for school assemblies the charity calls it "a day of reflection, allowing people to remember or think about all those people who are affected by wars, both in the past and now."

A Royal British Legion tweet from 2013

For the many people that wear a red poppy out of simple respect for the victims of war it clearly is. But many also feel like the event has become more militarized and politicized than ever before, less focused on mourning and more on celebrating war. In a letter to the Guardian published back in 2010 a group of British war veterans said, "A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum-roll of support for current wars." An image from 2013 of four young children holding cartoon-sized poppies and wearing t-shirts that say "future soldier" seemed like a confirmation the line between mourning past wars and celebrating future ones had become very blurred.

How this happened is up for debate. Some blame the state and its need to legitimize deeply unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others blame the Royal British Legion itself. In an article by Quaker Peace and Social Witness, part of the the national organization of British Quakers, the increased "involvement of the military in the Royal British Legion's campaign" is held responsible with troops and cadets now "selling poppies often with the cry of 'Support our troops!'"

Ties between the Royal British Legion and the arms industry have also raised difficult questions. Back in 2012 the charity's national president was forced to resign after the Sunday Times secretly filmed him offering to use his position to help lobby for arms companies. At one stage he described the group's annual Remembrance events as a "tremendous networking opportunity."

BAE systems, a British weapons company has sponsored national poppy appeals and donated huge amounts to the charity. And this year's "Poppy Rocks Ball"—a charity gala evening arranged on behalf of the Royal British Legion Young Professionals Branch—was sponsored by Lockheed Martin, the biggest arms dealer in the world.

On top of its links to the arms trade, the Royal British Legion has also been criticized for trivializing a historically somber event through tacky commercialism. The legion's poppy is a trademarked logo, the pop band The Saturdays have been used to help launch appeals, and on the group's website you can buy anything from poppy earrings and umbrellas to the controversial poppy hijab. Outside companies have been getting involved too. Last year Tesco started selling a poppy pizza, while Sainsbury offered canvas bags with the detachable symbol. You could see this as companies simply selling products that people want. But with the Legion's website promising corporate partners a host of benefits, remembrance is being used as a way to sell stuff and hype brands. "With 97 percent awareness of our poppy brand in the UK, we are uniquely placed to create a mutually beneficial partnership that meets your business needs," the Legion boasts.

Perhaps the anger of today's poppy-enforcers is a kind of a pushback against the growing number of people who—for some of the reasons detailed above—feel uneasy about how the dead are being remembered. And with milestones such as the death of people like Harry Patch—the last survivor of the trenches—this is happening while the need to preserve the ritual is felt more strongly than ever. Perhaps we're just becoming more jingoistic and intolerant as a nation. Whatever the reason, as Irish republicans, ex-veterans, and news anchors all show, commemorating the people that died in war has never been simple.

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