Recently a friend and I were in a pub, relaxing with a pint after a week of evenings spent in the university library. Minding our own business waiting to be served, I felt a small tap on my arm. A forty-something year old man with a shaven head was staring at me, before pointing at me and the white poppy that sat silently on my chest. ‘Is that one of those conscientious objector’s poppies?’ Oh boy. Here we go.
The White Poppy was founded in 1933 after members of the Women’s Co-Operative Guild started to wear the white poppies to represent their objections to violence and war. While the Guild was initially founded in 1883 to deal with women’s issues surrounding the home, they began campaigning against issues of a more political nature following the onset of the First World War – declaring in 1914 that ‘civilised nations should never again resort to the terrible and ineffectual method of war for the settlement of international disputes’. For them, the white poppy was a symbol of remembering the First World War, and learning from its mistakes.
However, this was not the first time there has been controversies with the red poppy. In 1929, eleven years after Armistice Day in 1918, the No War Movement campaigned to have the red poppy abandon its associations with military culture. Instead, they argued that the poppy should purely be a symbol for peace and remembrance for the tragedy of lives lost from war.
Since then, there has been conflicted associations with the red poppy: does it symbolise the British lives lost? Does it symbolise all lives lost? Does it symbolise the wish to end war, or to respect those at war? For many, this confused identity makes it an uncomfortable wear.
However, it isn’t necessarily the red poppy itself that makes many feel uncomfortable, but the ways it’s used. One only needs to look at the language used to describe war, the fallen soldiers and those currently fighting in war to understand where this discomfort originates. Indeed, with Remembrance Day being used by politicians to remind us of ‘the brave and heroic soldiers’ who ‘protect our country, day in, day out’, the red poppy is arguably becoming increasingly politicised to help create a sense of patriotism for ‘the troops on the fields’, generating support and justification for our current involvement in world affairs. There is a juxtaposition between the reality of the brutality of war and the heroic snapshots we are shown.
The red poppy has become an expectation, rather than a meaningful act of remembrance. ‘Poppy fascism’ was a term coined by Jon Snow, the Channel 4 news reader, to describe the stigmatisation faced by those who do not wear a poppy. Don’t wear one and risk facing comments from men in pubs. Risk facing social media backlash as Sienna Miller received after she didn’t wear one on the Graham Norton Show. Risk facing death threats like the Irish footballer James McClean has received. This pressure to wear red poppies arguably detracts from its value as a sign of remembrance; it is something that has to be worn, rather than a choice.
We risk homogenising and devaluing the worth of such lives when insisting the same behaviour from everyone in society. Such remembrance must be genuine or it undermines the entire meaning of such services. It is a disrespect to the dead to demand such rigid uniformity from the public. Mourning for a loved one is a personal experience, so the mourning of the millions dead from war should be too.
Despite the atrocities of the First World War, the Second World War arose 21 years later. Despite the atrocities of the Second World War, the world has not learnt its lesson; in 2014, Britain had officially not had a year spent out of conflict since 1914. You do not need to be a pacifist to be shocked at these statistics. They are statistics that undermine the origins of ‘Remembrance Day’. It was on November 11th 1918 when the First World War ended. Known as Armistice Day, the American President of the time, Woodrow Wilson, described how the war of 1914 would be ‘the war to end all wars’. The continued use of violence as a means to solve conflict undermines the message, the hope, the loss felt on November 11th 1918. Many believe that this continued fighting is a disrespect to the estimated 160 million people who died as a result of war in the 20th century.
War was once an event where it was only soldiers who were the victims of its atrocities. Now with the development of the bomb and other such weapons, the loss of civilians’ lives can be greater than the live lost in combat. It is estimated that in World War Two alone approximately 45 million civilians died compared with the 30 million soldiers who died. These are people who have no choice over the state of war – it is something that is forced upon them and they suffer as a result.
The white poppy therefore is a way to offer a more personal and valuable remembrance. While there are differing reasons why people chose to wear white poppies rather than red ones, the wish to remember the loss of lives, rather than glorifying such deaths as ‘heroic’ is a uniting force. Ultimately, to the general public the differences between the red and the white poppy may appear relatively slim, but small nuances go a long way.
It wasn’t until my encounter at the pub until I realised how controversial something so small, so minute, so delicate as a small white poppy can be. Having deviated from the norm, people assumed I was making a political statement. That I was sticking two fingers up to the government, army and war when, really, all I was doing was showing my respects in the same way every person who wears a red poppy shows their respect. Anyone who does not conform to this expectation instantly receives negative stigmatisation, one that needs to stop. I wear my white poppy with pride not because I wish to dishonour those who have died, but because I wish to respect and to mourn their lives in the same way millions who wear the red poppy wish to do. To say that war is a tragedy; to say that to normalise war is to lose sight of the origins of Remembrance Day. But, ultimately, my main wish is to remember; remember in peace.
So when the clock strikes eleven on Remembrance Day, I will be remembering the tragedy of their deaths. The civilian pain caused by war. The conflict that is a never ending chapter in human history. On Remembrance Day, I want to remember those who have fallen – all that have fallen – while hoping for a day where finally, as a species, we find the strength to put down the gun. On Remembrance Day, I’ll be thinking of the lines of Charles Hamilton Sorley’s poem, ‘To Germany’:
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new won eyes each other’s truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving kind and warm
We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm,
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.
Words by Juliette Rowsell, with special thanks to Nicholas Porter.