This year marks the centenary of Armistice Day, when what was then the bloodiest war in human history drew to a close at 11 o’clock on 11 November. The Great War, as it was morbidly known, cost the lives of millions, led to the collapse of various empires and fundamentally reshaped Europe. Many of the servicemen came back wounded, disabled or shell-shocked; many more did not return. The impact of the war at home was no less profound: rationing, the first bombing raids against civilians, and, thanks to the invention of Pals battalions, entire towns and villages full of children would never know their fathers.
Tragically, the end of the war did not bring an end to the misery: Spanish flu was to kill even more than the conflict itself, and the dream to stop the horrors of the war from ever being repeated – “Never again!” – was to be just that, a dream. The first world war was followed by a second just over 20 years later.
Nevertheless, one of the longer lasting consequences was a greater appreciation for the sacrifices made by the brave men and women of the armed services, and the support that both they and their relatives and loved ones deserve in return.
The Royal British Legion was founded to provide this support, and remembrance poppies – which the Legion sells – serve as a means of raising funds, an employment opportunity for ex- servicemen, and a way members of the public can show their appreciation and remember those who died in past conflicts.
The debate surrounding the meaning and significance of wearing poppies has intensified in recent years, with claims and counter-claims politicising the symbol.
On the one side, claims that wearing a poppy justifies or glorifies current conflicts and thus should be shunned gained traction during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others retort that those who choose not to wear a poppy are ‘unpatriotic’ and disrespecting those sacrifices made by the armed forces. Neither of these are true.
Another area of contention is the increasing popularity of white poppies, produced by the Peace Pledge Union to more widely commemorate all victims of wars both past and present, which have been attacked as drawing attention away from remembrance poppies. The poppy is not a symbol of war, but a symbol of remembrance, and its colour comes, not from the blood spilt by soldiers, but from the colour of the poppies that bloomed in the fields where battles once played out. Furthermore, white poppies date back almost as far as the original red poppies and the Royal British Legion do not object to people wearing them.
The most rightful conclusion in the debate concerning the politicisation of poppies is actually that people should be entirely free to make the personal choice whether to commemorate Remembrance Day or not, without fear of what others may think.
The very sacrifices made by those we remember were made in the name of that freedom. The symbolism of poppies is a powerful one, as ‘In Flanders Fields’ shows, but it should not be misinterpreted or manipulated for ulterior purposes.
Image: Pete via Flickr
Illustration by Katie Moore