Remembrance: Poppies

This Thursday, 11th November 2010 is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I will be submitting my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the first of three about commemoration and remembrance.

The British Legion’s Poppy campaign has been in the news again this year. Yet again, there has been criticism of Jon Snow, who has rightly proclaimed that part of the freedom for which the World Wars were fought is the freedom to wear his poppy when and where he chooses.  His choice of the word ‘fascism’ in relation to the idea that all (especially on TV) must wear poppies was perhaps a little extreme, but then perhaps not – it really should be up to the individual as he says. (See this piece in the Guardian for reasoned commentary on the matter).

Beyond the poppy-enforcement campaign, there has also been criticism from veterans about the style and aims of the poppy appeal. Some veterans of Britain’s wars since the 1960s have written this letter to the Guardian:

The Poppy Appeal is once again subverting Armistice Day. A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars. This year’s campaign has been launched with showbiz hype. The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored.

The public are being urged to wear a poppy in support of “our Heroes”. There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict.

Remembrance should be marked with the sentiment “Never Again”.

They certainly have a point, the ‘showbiz hype’ for the launch of the campaign (apparently this year is was launched by the Saturdays singing and some aerobatics (not by the Saturdays) in Colchester – can’t say I noticed either) has very little to do with the horror and futility of war.  Equally, it is indeed hardly ‘heroic’ to be blown up.

On the other hand, though, the whole point is to raise awareness and money for the British Legion and charitable efforts to support veterans.  Would it not be just as insulting not to bother with any kind of launch?  If charities want to raised awareness, don’t they need to take on modern marketing strategies (the poppy was very much in the mould of wartime and prewar charity campaigns, such as flag days). Quite how elderly men and women (or local cadets) selling poppies from a cardboard box does more to highlight the horror and futility of war (the latter surely a matter of opinion) is not clear. In fact, I think this years posters with an amputee and the message ‘It only takes a second to put on a poppy’ are quite effective. Amputees tend not to make the cause of their wounds look sexy and exciting, and these posters will been seen by more people than the showbiz launch.

The British Legion state that their campaign is apolitical and is designed to support the veterans and widows of Britain’s wars, not to promote support for those wars. Fundamentally, this will always be a matter of opinion. Does the campaign accept that wars happen and deal with the consequences, or does it give the government the message that it is okay to launch wars because the BL will pick up the pieces (in this country at least) afterwards? Quite possibly it does both.  Should the campaign and prominent fundraising stop in an attempt to stop the wars?  This line of thought is rather circular, and is (in part) the critique behind the White Poppy for peace.

The glitzy launch for the Poppy Appeal does seem rather crass to me, but then it is for a good cause and is only once a year (and I hadn’t really noticed until reading about it today).  Back in the early post-WW1 years, it was not clear what 11 November should be – there were Balls on Armistice Day at the Albert Hall and drunkenness among ex-servicemen, but these were forced out by the perceived needs of the bereaved for a more sober (literally and metaphorically) reflection of the nation’s losses.  I would like to think that the showbiz launches of poppy appeals recall this, but they do not – they are part of the charity campaign, not celebrations of hard-won peace and freedom.

People will always disagree about the aims and methods of the Poppy Appeal, as with anything to do with wars, and indeed welfare provision.  That people feel strongly enough to argue about it is a good sign, although the enforcement of poppy-wearing is antithetical to what British soldiers have fought most of the major wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for.

(Anyone interested in the early histories of Armistice Day and the British Legion should read Adrian Gregory’s The Silence of Memory, Niall Barr’s The Poppy and the Lion and Deborah Cohen’s The War Come Home)


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