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Has the Poppy had its day?

2012 November 1
by Paul Vallely

What will be the Poppy controversy this time? In past years the season of remembrance has been marked by a variety of rows. Last time there was one over whether England’s footballers could wear shirts bearing the emblem in Europe.  There have been protests from Islamic extremists at the Cenotaph. There have been complaints from the right about the Poppy as a fashion accessory and from the left about politically correct “Poppy fascism” which brands any public figure who declines to wear a Poppy as unpatriotic or proclaimers of a psychological treachery. It is tempting to wonder amid all this hoo-haa whether the Poppy has had its day.

This month the Queen will visit the Royal British Legion Poppy Factory in Richmond  to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the place which makes around 36 million poppies each year. It was set up in 1922 to provide work for ex-servicemen disabled in the First World War, a generation of men whose survivors have now almost entirely gone peacefully to their graves. Most veterans of the Second World War have followed them.

A few years ago I spent some time with a group of them selling Poppies by a supermarket in a small English town. For them memory was an affirmation of their identity. Remembrance was an activity of sweet sadness in which the past and the present intermingled. “You don’t sell Poppies; people buy them,” one old soldier said to me. “Don’t shake the tin,” said another “it’s bad form”. Their memory is now becoming a second-hand affair and, you might suppose, will inexorably fade away.

New wars – in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan – have changed all that. With new wars have come new forms, like the charity Help for Heroes which was founded only five years ago but which last year raised £46m, almost a third of what the British Legion raises. In place of the Poppy it uses a range of fundraising techniques like its Big Battlefield Bike Ride, Heroes Ball and Twickenham rugby challenge matches. X Factor finalists recorded David Bowie’s Heroes to raise funds for it. And new times have brought new protests, with Poppies being burned in 2010 by a group called Muslims Against Crusades, and a similar group a year later threatening a “Hell for Heroes” protest.

But there is more to it than that. The historian Jay Winter suggests there are at least three stages in the process of remembrance. The first is the construction of a commemorative form, with a set of meanings that contemporaries readily understand. The second is the fixing of this ritual action in the calendar, so it becomes embedded in social identity. Then in the third stage, as the years pass, the ritual loses its original force so that it either fades away or is transformed into something different.

As war comes in cycles so does the commemorative process, each overlapping with the phases of the next. We think of the Poppy as the vehicle to commemorate the fallen because poppies were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders. Yet there is some evidence that the association of poppies with battlefield burial goes back to the Napoleonic Wars. And the Poppy itself has changed with, at various times, Peace Pledge Union White Poppies coming into fashion and even, at one point, animal lovers reportedly issuing Purple Poppies to memorialise animal victims of war.

But there have been significant shifts in perception too. In Northern Ireland the Poppy was for decades seen among Catholics as a symbol of support for the British Army and therefore a badge of Unionist identity. Despite the historical reality that many volunteers from the Irish republic had died fighting in the British army in both world wars, Republicans did not just refuse to wear them they also objected to policemen wearing Poppies while patrolling in nationalist areas, condemning the emblem as “repugnant and offensive”. It was only in 2010 that the first leader of a nationalist party there wore one.

Changes cut both ways. Just a few months ago Help for Heroes came under fire for spending money on buildings rather than the everyday care of disabled servicemen. BBC investigative journalists found wounded veterans who complained that the charity’s care for them ended as soon as they were discharged from the army and were left to cope in civilian life without help.

So it is with the ebb and flow of what the Poppy stands for. Once, indisputably, it was a badge of patriotism. The poem In Flanders Fields, which became the cynosure of remembrance, was written by John McCrae, a young Canadian officer, early in the war before the first flush of martial romanticism had lost its bloom amid the mud and blood of the trenches. After two winsome lyrical opening verses it ended with a third which was little more than a crude recruitment call to “take up our quarrel with the foe” and the admonition that “if ye break faith with us who die/ we shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ in Flanders fields”.

But the Poppy can be recast as a symbol of dedication to peace. There was a powerful example of that when more than 8,000 poppies were scattered under the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral on Remembrance Day last year. On the ground the poppies appeared to have fallen randomly, but when viewed from the Whispering Gallery the red petals formed on the white marble an image of three child soldiers from the wars of the past century.

The Poppy installation – named Innocence Betrayed by the artist Ted Harrison –brought the past and present together in such a way as to shock us. Without vigilance, it warned, history repeats itself. We remember not to be comforted but to be challenged. The Poppy should be a reminder of how, generation after generation, we fail to learn the lessons of history and repeatedly fail to rise to the challenge to find an alternative to war.


Third Way Magazine

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