by James Anthony

In the last couple of weeks, millions of people have been wearing poppies in advance of Remembrance Day, and once again it’s kicked off the same debate I see every year. The poppy debate seems to be a hugely divisive issue, with some outright refusing to wear one, seeing it as a symbol which glorifies conflict, and some people determined to make sure everyone wears one. I’m not convinced it’s quite as contentious an issue as it often appears in the press, but it is greatly worrying that Remembrance Sunday seems to become more and more about who wears a poppy and who doesn’t – and this attitude has to stop.

The poppy was never supposed to cause political controversy. Inspired by similar poppy wearing initiatives in France, the Royal British Legion launched the first Poppy Appeal in Britain in 1921 to commemorate those who fought and died in the First World War, but many have argued against this idea from the very start. The white poppy, worn to symbolise peace as a reaction against the red poppy, has existed since 1933, showing that this debate has been going on for an awfully long time. To this day, so many of us still wear the red or white poppy, but many choose not to, arguing over what they truly represent.

How could a symbol of remembrance generate this much hatred, and how can we stop this?

Recently, for many people the poppy seems to have become synonymous with ideas of militarism and British national pride, and to fail to wear a poppy is seen as unpatriotic. There are numerous examples of public figures being ridiculed and abused for not wearing a poppy, with some having faced barrages of online abuse and hatred. Every year I see examples of people using the excuse of someone not wearing a poppy to espouse thinly veiled racist remarks or abhorrent political views. It is a serious issue, and ironically, the serious abuse of those with differing views is something that Britain has supposedly fought against in the past. How could a symbol of remembrance generate this much hatred, and how can we stop this?

I’ve seen many opinion pieces suggesting we all ditch the poppy entirely. I’ve also seen the term ‘poppy fascism’ banded about before on this topic, claiming that those who insist on people wearing poppies are somehow comparable to fascists. It’s an understandable reaction given the press hysteria on the issue, but given the context of remembrance and the Second World War, the term itself can be seen as offensive. I’m not convinced that being totally against the wearing of red poppies is the answer, either.

[McCrae House National Historic Site of Canada / Photo via Wikipedia]

I’ve always thought that part of the beauty of the poppy is its different meaning to different people. Particularly as I’ve grown older and studied historical conflict in more depth, I see the poppy as a symbol of acknowledgement of the pointlessness of war and the tragic loss of life that comes with it. It was local men my age just a century ago who were sent to fight with little chance of survival in the ironically named ‘Great War’, and I see the wearing of a poppy as a symbolic way of remembering young men like me with hopes, dreams, ambitions and loved ones, but who were unfortunate enough to be born a hundred years earlier. Having been to visit the battlefields and areas where thousands of those soldiers lie buried and seeing poppies grow across the fields, the poppy as a symbol feels as removed from glorifying conflict as you can get.

I see the poppy as a symbol of acknowledgement of the pointlessness of war and the tragic loss of life that comes with it.

For me, giving up on wearing the poppy is a victory for those who want to make it a symbol of nationalism and blind support of British militarism. I would strongly suggest that those who are sick and tired of the politicising of the poppy wear one regardless if they feel it is important to them, and have their own reasons for doing so – although perhaps suggesting that makes me no better than groups who demonise and berate public figures for not wearing one.

I’m hoping that people are able to accept that this isn’t a clear cut issue, and respect individual choices. While I won’t be judging people for wearing the poppy or not, I can’t help but get frustrated at those who wish to impose their way of thinking on others, whether pro-poppy or anti-poppy. Ultimately, this issue is deeply personal, and we all reflect on war in different ways on Remembrance Sunday – but that reflection and remembrance does not begin with demonising those who choose to wear, or not to wear, the poppy.

Writer’s Note: I was inspired to discuss this issue by reading https://norfolkinworldwar1.org/commemorating-the-fallen-of-norfolk/, a local project to remember those Norfolk residents who died in the First World War.

Featured image: Wikipedia

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