Poppies, a tradition instilled into our culture since 1921, is our nations way of remembering the lives lost during the World Wars. Older still is the two-minute silence on the 11 November, originally adopted in 1921.
However, a recent motion proposed by Cambridge University’s Conservative Society that aimed to make the commemoration a better- established event instilling gratitude and awareness into the forefront of the student mindset was rejected by students for fear that the ritual may “glorify” conflict and promote militarism.
The motion was not so well received by the mayor of Cambridgeshire and the Royal British Legion Scotland alike, Edinburgh’s Legion team has been keen to express as such upon being interviewed. Therefore, the values that uphold the Poppy Appeal that is still potent and respected even against what brought Cambridge’s aversion to the tradition about: our innate fear to offend in this relentlessly politically correct society.
Visiting Edinburgh’s Poppy Appeal launch at St Andrew Square, not far from Prince’s Street, I was lucky enough to meet some of Scottish Legion’s lovely workers and associates, including 75-year- old Brian Morton, who was there to represent the Scottish Military Vehicle Group (SMVG). Upon being asked his opinion on the role of the poppy appeal, his response, contrary to the Cambridge student activists’ notion that is “glorifies” war, was that it’s just as much an educative practice of precaution for future generations as it is for honouring the dead. He stated “it’s to forgive and not forget the past”, elaborating that “it carries on through generations so that we never forget”, showing the importance of integrating and educating the younger generations into the tradition. He also pointed out that “the reason that all of this is done is to help the soldiers who [are] coming back from war who need regular help”, highlighting the
campaign’s importance as a charity. Through recounting sad stories of veteran friends of Brian’s, traumatized by war, it was made very apparent that the Appeal’s impact is much wider than simply raising awareness for the armed forces.
Of course, that is not to say that all parties involved in the Cambridge controversy were accepting of such a socially integrated ritual being cast aside. While Cambridge student activist Stella Swain, argued in The Telegraph, that “productive criticism” of war should be enforced as opposed to causing offence by focusing on “British veterans”. James Palmer, mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough opposed this in expressing grief that students can’t “be grateful and respectful of previous generations and their sacrifices”.
Pushing the argument further, he brought about the point that “it is easy to judge from a distance when you have the luxury of a safe and comfortable democracy. We have an enormous debt to armed forces in this country,” he told The Telegraph. While it is potentially true that the conventional approach to Remembrance Day may not be explicitly active in ensuring a nationwide mentality opposed to militarism, the Mayor of Cambridgeshire acknowledges that it is the only time that as a nation we communally recognise and appreciate our armed forces’ role, as well as the privilege of living in a free and democratic nation.
The mentality behind Remembrance Day, therefore, is the issue in question. While it is potentially not a universal “productive criticism of war”, the poppy in itself is educational to the younger generation, ensuring that the consequences of war are acknowledged. Upon asking another member of the Poppy Appeal team, Veteran Suzanne Fernando, whether young people should be more involved, she keenly and concisely stated that “the more they’re educated the more they’ll understand it as they’re growing up”, thus showing the tradition to be, although focused on the past, a productive aversion to militarist mindset.
The Poppy plays a crucial role in educating the next generation and brings into awareness the safe and comfortable democracy we so often take for granted. The tradition has lasted almost a century, a unified appreciation of our citizenship. This being said changes may be forthcoming in how we commemorate the past, should such opposition like that of the Cambridge student activists continue.
Image: Josephine Coffey