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White vs. Red Poppies on ‘Remembrance Day’

A cultural fault line has developed over the 100-year tradition of honoring the sacrifice of soldiers in the Great War.

Red poppies with one white for “peace” (Nankai/Creative Commons)

Remembrance Day—the United Kingdom’s holiday commemorating its soldiers who gave their lives in the First World War—has been the focus of a cultural fault line. 

The iconic red poppy used to symbolize the event is being substituted for a white poppy in some circles. The custom of wearing a red poppy the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day has been criticized for several years now by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) for promoting militarization. In protest against this alleged endorsement of violence, the PPU has been distributing white poppies instead of red ones—a symbol of “peace,” not “war.”

According to the PPU website, the white poppy is meant to be an all-inclusivesymbol of remembrance: It honors and remembers not just the British soldiers who fought during the First World War, but all victims of all wars (including those still being fought today); it respects both soldiers and civilians; “those wounded in body or mind” anywhere; it honors “those killed or imprisoned for refusing to fight and resisting war;” and it stands as a symbol to demonstrate a commitment to peace and to challenge attempts to “glamorise” war. 

The PPU states that the push to wear white poppies has been going on for over eighty years. The movement was started back in 1933 by the Co-Operative Women’s Guild out of frustration with the failed promise of the original message associated with Remembrance Day: “Never again.” After all, says the PPU, there have been wars since WWI ended. Remembrance Day has failed, become a sham. It is a “ritual” that annually serves to “reinforce and perpetuate the view that war is acceptable and natural.”

 More crucially, PPU says, it “does disservice to all who wish for, and work for peace, and know that there are less brutal ways of managing conflict on an overcrowded planet.”

And what is the goal for which the wearing of white poppies supports? The end of what the PPU calls a “social institution” that has “contributed to the killing of millions.” A peace to end all wars. 

Proponents of the white poppy admit, nonetheless, that there are “practical difficulties,” that get in the way of their otherwise-reasonable cause: “Challenging some long-established traditions often sets sections of the press into a frenzy of indignation,” their site explains. Tradition, in other words, is the practical difficulty preventing peace and perpetuating war. If only we’d eliminate it, surely we could get closer to peace.

Never mind that the Royal British Legion says, quite explicitly on their page, that the red poppy is neither a symbol of death nor an endorsement of war, that it is not a reflection of politics or religion, and that it is not (as is incorrectly often assumed) meant to represent the color of blood spilled. Perhaps this so-called indignation from “sections of the press” is due not to the PPU’s challenging of a tradition, but from people’s realization that the PPU forgets why and whence this tradition originated in the first place. 

Still, peace-poppy proponents contend that the Remembrance Day ceremonies have devolved into a business, a form of red poppy fundraising that enjoys association with a “mythic military past,” to put it in their terms. Turns out soldiers from 1914 share a mythical origin with the Knights of the Round Table.   

It is no legend, surely, but, like the best of stories, the reason long-established traditions persist is because there is some validity to them–-because they speak to something collective, concrete, and personal in our national identity as well as our humanity. The tradition of honoring military sacrifice is no exception. Much to our redemption, our instinct to create such traditions is something far more artistic and sublime.

It might serve well to give a brief recapitulation of where the tradition came from. Wearing red poppies for Remembrance Day dates back to the middle of the First World War. It was inspired by the war poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, who penned it after losing a friend in the battle of Ypres and attending his funeral in 1915. The image of the poppies came to himas a symbol of hope upon seeing them growing in the field where so many soldiers, including his friend, had died.

The red poppy is a tangible, location-specific symbol of what happened, not a universal stand-in for bloodshed. By wearing the red poppy, we are reminded of the human aspect of war by wearing a piece of the soil on which soldiers fought. It is not violence as a concept that we celebrate, rather soldiers as an embodiment of our highest values that we commemorate. 

The act of contemplating flowers during wartime is a literary tradition of its own, not least in British war poetry. War poets, many of them soldiers themselves, often used flowers in their verses to convey their thoughts about life and death, and to honor their fallen comrades. I am reminded of a poem, “A Soldier’s Grave,” written by the Irish soldier and poet Francis Ledwidge, who died in battle during WWI:

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath 

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest 

The poppy is not a symbol of war. A wildflower, it is intrinsically a symbol of peace, no matter the color, for it represents the beauty and resilience of nature even amidst all the havoc we wreak on ourselves. It is an indication that even with death comes life, and therefore that no death in war is ever forgotten. How could it be that some soldiers—anxious, tired, crestfallen men—fixed their gaze, in the din of battle, on these little flowers and deemed them their muse? And what of the power of such a simple symbol, reminding soldiers of peace after death, and touching the hearts of so many after? We don’t wear pins of guns or cannons to honor fallen soldiers on Remembrance Day; we wear a fragile flower that grows in fields where soldiers died. Is there more peaceful a symbol than that? 

None of this is to say that war is not horrific. War ought not be romanticized, but nor should it be neglected. It would be a disservice to this complex and pain-filled part of English literature if in covering British war poetry I neglected to highlight the verses of Wilfred Owen, who expressed the ugliness, pain, and injustice of war. Just as we read “In Flanders Fields,” so too should we read “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Indeed, I hope we do; it conveys the need for peace far better than the PPU’s activism. 

There is one way in which the PPU has an important point, and it is the fact that years pass. People begin to forget the origins of traditions, leading to indifferent, desultory pomp, and ultimately negligence and irreverence. A paragraph from the PPU website is worth quoting in full:

The London Remembrance ceremony once consisted almost wholly of grieving relatives for whom it was an important event. As wounds healed and people move on their numbers declined, to be gradually replaced by former soldiers who marched proudly past the Cenotaph and radically altered the nature of the ceremony from consolation to implicit justification of war. Today the growing number of civilian institutions who find attraction and advantage in being associated with the military ethos of the ceremony is part of the growing militarisation of British society.

We run the danger of forgetting why traditions start in the first place, as time estranges us from their origins. We simply go through the motions; we forget to remember. The danger, then, is not in the act of forgetting itself, but in the consequences of forgetting that lead us to replace our traditions with something tawdry and hollow. Still, the fault lies in us, not the tradition.

But this natural habit of societies cannot be solved simply by erasing and substituting obscure traditions with new ones every few years. Instead, we might reinvigorate remembrance, especially in our younger generations. Britain’s white-poppy fad comes from a comfortable position of living in a fairly safe and prosperous Brain that is not plagued by war. That peace and safety was purchased by the sacrifice of soldiers who fought and died in Britain’s wars over the years, remembered every year with the wearing of red poppies, those true symbols of peace.

Nayeli Riano is a writer based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @NayeliLRiano

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