Britain and the poppy – a word of explanation

No practice, convention or tradition is without controversy in the UK, not even the red poppy.

‘IN FLANDERS fields the poppies blow’: British remembrance poppies. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘IN FLANDERS fields the poppies blow’: British remembrance poppies.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
At this time of year non-Brit viewers of TV news and current affairs from the UK face something of a puzzle. Come the last day of October, British news readers, interviewees, chat show hosts, guests, all seem to decide to sport a red flower in their buttonholes or pinned to their garments.
You can scour the US news channels and find not a single scarlet bloom attached to anyone’s lapel. As for Israelis, it is doubtful if anyone, except perhaps bridegrooms, would ever dream of doing such a thing.
In Britain itself, the phenomenon is not restricted to the TV screen. At this time of year vast numbers of people begin wearing this artificial red flower. It represents the common or field poppy, and is intended as a symbol commemorating the millions of members of the armed forces who have lost their lives in conflicts dating from the First World War onward.
Throughout Western Europe, scarlet corn poppies grow naturally in areas where the earth has been plowed up or otherwise disturbed. In late 1914, the fields of Northern France and Flanders were ripped apart as the German and Allied armies began the trench warfare that was to rage on for more than four years. The poppy was one of the only plants to grow on the otherwise barren battlefields.
While serving in Ypres in the spring of 1915, a Canadian surgeon, John McCrae, wrote “In Flanders Fields.” It was published in a leading UK magazine in December of that year and almost immediately elevated the poppy into a token memorial to the fallen. The poem begins: In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
In 1918, intensely moved by McCrae’s poem, an American charity worker, Moina Michael, launched a campaign to have the poppy adopted as a symbol of national remembrance in the United States. It took her only two years to achieve her goal, and in 1920 the National American Legion adopted the poppy as the official symbol of remembrance. These days it is worn in the States during ceremonies on Memorial Day – the last Monday in May – to commemorate those who have given their lives fighting for their country.
The success of Moira Michael’s campaign to convert the poppy into a symbol commemorating fallen soldiers, followed by its adoption in France, convinced the Royal British Legion to follow suit. The first-ever Poppy Day appeal in the UK was organized on November 11, 1921, the proceeds being dedicated to those serving in the British armed forces.
From that time, the symbolic message of the poppy grew into an international phenomenon in the UK and across the Commonwealth. It became part and parcel of the annual ceremonies to commemorate those who had fallen. From 1919 to 1945, “the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month” – the moment that the First World War ended – was marked in Britain with parades and ceremonies, and a two-minute silence. After the end of the Second World War, the main commemoration was moved to the second Sunday in November.
This year, despite COVID-19, the national Service of Remembrance is planned to be held as usual in central London on November 8. The arrangements will be adapted to take account of the pandemic restrictions, but the Queen is expected to be present as members of the royal family, the nation’s political leaders and ambassadors from around the globe lay their wreaths of poppies at the Cenotaph. This year is especially significant because it will mark the 100th anniversary of the unveiling of the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall, and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.
The annual national poppy appeal, which last year raised more than £50 million from the sale of some 40 million red poppies, has also been adapted to take account of coronavirus restrictions. The usual thousands of street sellers are being cut back because so many are in the vulnerable age groups. Instead, poppies will be offered at point-of-sale venues across the country.
No practice, convention or tradition is without controversy in the UK, not even the red poppy. Inevitably, the concept of remembering the servicemen and women who died fighting for their country proved distasteful to some, who saw it as a glorification of war. As an alternative, in 1933 the white poppy was introduced by a women’s organization. A year later it was taken over by the Peace Pledge Union to promote pacifism, a commitment to peace and as “a challenge to attempts to glamorize or celebrate war.” Last year 122,000 white poppies were sold in the UK.
The Royal British Legion maintains that the red poppy “is a symbol of peace inclusive of all, regardless of race, belief, origin or sexual/gender identity. Remembrance is neutral on both the causes and consequences of individual conflicts, and is above partisan and political interpretation.” The final lines of McCrae’s poem run:
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.