Debate: Is the Poppy Appeal simply an act of remembrance?

Tilda Gregg-Smith: Yes, the Poppy Appeal honours the dead and prevents history from repeating itself.

War is bad: no one disputes that fact. And yet around this time every year, the old debate over whether or not we should be wearing poppies once more rears its head. The principle accusation levelled against the poppies is that they are a symbol of the glorification of war. This is utter nonsense. The aim of the Poppy Appeal, as stated on their website, is “to raise funds for our essential welfare work for our Service men and women, veterans, and their families”. When you buy a poppy, you contribute towards helping those in the Armed Forces and their families, many of whom are themselves victims of war and its consequences. The tagline of the Poppy Appeal is ‘Live On’ and its aim is to help serving soldiers and wounded veterans to do just this, ensuring that the memories of those who died during the wars live on and, crucially, that the memories of the horrific events of war will not be forgotten, and will not be repeated.

It is fairly easy to understand the initial opposition to the Poppy Appeal, as Field Marshall Haig initially created it, and the poppies themselves were embossed with the words ‘Haig Fund’. Field Marshall Haig was, infamously, the commander during some of the most destructive battles of the First World War, including the battle of the Somme, and is said to be responsible for around two million British casualties. As a result of this, the white poppies were created as a sign of pacifism. Whilst these white poppies send out a message whilst also remembering those who lost their lives, they are entirely unnecessary, as this is something already done by the red poppies.

Wearing a poppy is a tradition like the two-minute silence, or the playing of The Last Post, which is intended purely as an act of remembrance. In fact, although the fourth verse of Laurence Binyon’s iconic poem ‘For the Fallen’ ensures that there is never a dry eye left in the room, it is also the part of a poem that includes the dubious line describing “a glory that shines upon our tears”. Despite this clear celebratory tone, rarely do you hear anyone suggesting that the poem should be substituted for another, less exultant, poem. This indicates that a large portion of those complaining about the poppies do not have a comprehensive idea of why they boycott the red poppies, and are simply jumping on the anti-poppy bandwagon.

The stunning art installation of poppies at the Tower of London, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, comprised of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a British fatality during the First World War, demonstrates the scope of the bloodshed. Although having come under fire for similar reasons as the Poppy Appeal, the installation is simultaneously beautiful, poignant, and horrifying, reinforcing on a monumental scale the message of remembrance and regret expressed by the poppies.

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to wear a red poppy is an individual one. However, it must be recognised that they are a way of remembering the terrible loss, the waste of life and the appalling events of the wars, and aim to prevent history from being repeated. The symbolism of the flower that grew in the places where thousands were killed is in no way a glorification of war. It is simply a reminder of terrible slaughter. The poppies are not in any way celebratory, but are commemorative, an act of remembrance.

 

Simon Fern: No, the jingoistic symbol of the red poppy has been distanced from its intended root.

For a long time now, the poppy has been distanced from its root. In articulating this sentiment, there is already awareness that some readers will gawp and reject these words as left-wing, hippie nonsense spouted by a self-righteous and uninformed student. However, one need only look at the military recruitment stands, which frequent The Meadows, to appreciate that there is a dangerous line between respectful silence and failing to speak up.

Remembrance and memory are inherently political, and projection is inherent in this constructed memory. We project the idea that World War One was fought as a battle over freedom, democracy and liberal ideals, that there was a cause worth dying for in those blood soaked fields. There is also a nagging feeling that some manners of remembrance betray memory, and even distort it. There should be nothing controversial about pausing to reassess the symbolism and presentation of WWI and hold a much-needed debate at this poignant anniversary.

Britain First currently adorn many of their hateful effusions with this flower, in tandem with a certain cult of worship dedicated to service persons. This forms a narrative where these soldiers are taken as brave crusaders fighting back hordes of evil immigrants. This is but one, and perhaps the most crude, example of appropriation and corruption of the poppy by a group that soils it by association. Although this is no reflection on the wonderful work done by associated charities in rehabilitating and caring for former service persons, the symbol’s appropriation is troubling.

There is a quasi-hagiographic fixation with Britain’s military actions, one which skirts over inconvenient moments such as Sir Harris’ bombing of 600,000 civilians across 131 towns and cities across Germany, British detention camps and atrocities in 1950s Kenya, questionable conduct in Northern Ireland and frequent transgressions in Iraq. Simply because evils have been at times defeated through violent conflict does not mean that we might not have in the process internalized and reflected inhumanity once fought. An integral part of remembrance should be asking for forgiveness: it is far harder for a nation to recognise its complicity and failings than to parade the flag, beat the drum and recite Kipling’s jingoistic verse.

The idea of a continuous heritage of heroism is a narrative that permeates mainstream coverage of the remembrance period. For many, ‘supporting our troops’ through the poppy has become too much of a moral strain. Although fully supportive of the armed forces as individuals, supporting them in their employed capacity as forces personnel becomes a challenge of conscience. Reconciling compassion for people conducting a difficult career with a disdain for violence and concerns about pitfalls in UK foreign policy is a mammoth task, and one that cannot be meaningfully engaged with here.

The final verse of John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ has always felt deeply troubling. It asks us to continue “our quarrel with the foe”, and demands that should we “break faith with us who die” they “shall not sleep”. McCrae’s writing has a deep contradiction to it: in memory of the dead, we should continue to fight. Though cast as such at the time, the First World War was not ‘the war to end all wars’. Neither was the 2003 invasion the beginning of peaceful liberal democracy in Iraq.

As our political elite stands suited with poppies pinned to their chests, pausing for two minutes, many of them currently support the continued maintenance and expansion of our nuclear arsenal. The idea of remembrance should necessarily entail ‘never again’, not merely ‘never forget’. How would the glorious dead feel knowing that the men offering their condolences are supportive of weapons capable of destruction which might one day dwarf the horror of Passchendaele?

 

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