Symbolised by the wearing of a red poppy, every year at this time there is a brief period of remembrance for those who have given life and limb in conflict on the behest of the British state apparatus. Every year that period is itself marred by a war of words between those who see it as a chance to glorify those conflicts under the umbrella of patriotism and those who hope that remembrance might be an opportunity to learn and advance. In previous years the conflict has mostly centered on arguments over whether or not TV personalities and politicians are wearing red poppies predominantly enough, or occasionally over the rights and wrongs of wearing white poppies. The poppy appeal has become effectively sacrosanct with no dissenting views allowed. This year the predictable arguments have broadened as the Legion has ‘modernised’ it’s appeal, adopted an ‘Afghanistan Generation’ campaign which focuses on the current conflict there.
A week ago reports emerged of poppy appeal billboards being subvertised to call for Tony Blair to be prosecuted for war crimes and for British troops to be bought home. Mainstream media reported outrage and the act was condemned by the Legion. The subvertising spread with reports of sightings in Norwich, Basingstoke, Bristol and London. Not long after, an open letter of apology was issued and reproduced in full or in part in the media. The Legion replied through the media saying it accepted the apology. The Afghanistan occupation has now cost 229 British soldiers lives, and thousands more injured (not to mention the tens of thousands of Afghan civilians killed since the invasion began 8 years ago). In an apparently intolerable act of remembrance, three people held a 229 minute vigil at the Cenotaph in Downing Street but with less than a week now till remembrance day the repression against dissenting voices stepped up a notch and all three were arrested under the controversial SOCPA laws.
Links: 229 Minute Afghanistan Vigil, Cenotaph, London | 3 arrests at 229 Minute Afghanistan Vigil, Cenotaph, London | New rash of subverted poppy appeal billboards across London. | Poppy appeal poster ‘vandal’ apologises | Support for poppy poster defacement | DIY guide | Subertising hits the big time | Bring ’em Home – first report and photo of poppy poster subvertising | Background: Afghanistan: Dying For OIL…..Unicol Corporation Feeding On Blood!
Up to 10 million soldiers were killed in the First World War. It’s not known how many civilians died as well, but the estimate is 1.4 million. In 1919 the traumatised survivors of the fighting began to find their way home. Everyone who fought in Belgium and northern France had noticed the extraordinary persistence and profusion of an apparently fragile flower: the cornfield poppy, which splashed its blood-red blooms over the fields every summer. It blooms there to this day, on the fields now returned to the farming they were meant for, and from which the bones of the dead are still collected as the farmers’ ploughs uncover them.
The returning American ex-servicemen made the red poppy their emblem, arranging for artificial poppies to be made by women in war-ravaged northern France. The funds raised from selling the poppies were for children who had suffered because of the war.
In Britain, the weary soldiers came back from the grimness of war to find that life was hard at home too, though in a different way. Many of the men were wounded or disabled or suffering the effects of gas and shell-shock. Many were physically or mentally unable to work; many others found that there were no jobs anyway. The provision made for them by the state was less than adequate. They certainly didn’t get the heroes’ homecoming that they had been led to expect. So ex-servicemen’s societies united in 1921 to form the British Legion. Its purpose was to provide support to ex-servicemen, especially the disabled, and their families, and it was to become one of the most successful British charities ever.
A Frenchwoman who was helping to organise the production of artificial poppies in France suggested that the British Legion might like to sell them to raise money. The British Legion approved of this idea, and ordered at least 1.5 million for November 11, 1921. They sold out almost at once. The first Poppy Appeal made £106,000, a huge sum in those days. The British Legion now decided to set up its own poppy factory, with disabled ex-servicemen making up the workforce. The Remembrance red poppy rapidly became an established part of British life. ‘Poppy Day’ said the Western Daily News in 1927, was ‘the one flag day when every man, woman and child with hardly an exception wears an emblem’.
By the end of the 20th century the British Legion were producing annually over 32 million ‘lapel’ poppies, 100,000 wreaths and 400,000 Remembrance crosses. In the days leading up to Remembrance these poppies can still be seen most prominently in the lapels of people normally discouraged (or even barred) from advertising their favourite charities – such as politicians, the police, and TV newsreaders.
But the poppy has had its problems. Some people who have chosen not to wear it have faced anger and abuse. It’s also got involved with politics. In Northern Ireland, for example, it became regarded as a Protestant Loyalist symbol because of its connection with British patriotism. And a growing number of people have been concerned about the poppy’s association with military power and the justification of war. Some people have wondered why, with a state welfare system, the services of the British Legion (slogan: ‘Honour the dead, care for the living’) are still needed; some say it’s disgraceful that they were ever needed at all – though the many suffering people who have depended on help from the British Legion are profoundly grateful. (Governments have been grateful too: ‘Governments cannot do everything. They cannot introduce the sympathetic touch of a voluntary organisation’!) But the question lingers: if the dead are said to have ‘sacrificed’ their lives, then why weren’t the living, who came out of the same danger, being suitably honoured and cared for by the state that sent them into it? The language of Remembrance, in the light of that, looks more like propaganda than passion.
The idea of decoupling Armistice Day , the red poppy and later Remembrance Day from their military culture dates back to 1926, just a few years after the British Legion was persuaded to try using the red poppy as a fundraising tool in Britain. A member of the No More War Movement suggested that the British Legion should be asked to imprint ‘No More War’ in the centre of the red poppies instead of ‘Haig Fund’ and failing this pacifists should make their own flowers.
The details of any discussion with the British Legion are unknown but as the centre of the red poppy displayed the ‘Haig Fund’ imprint until 1994 it was clearly not successful. A few years later the idea was again discussed by the Co-operative Women’s Guild who in 1933 produced the first white poppies to be worn on Armistice Day (later called Remembrance Day). The Guild stressed that the white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War – a war in which many of the women lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers. The following year the newly founded Peace Pledge Union joined the CWG in the distribution of the poppies and later took over their annual promotion.
The use of the red poppies at Remembrance time has spread to some of the ‘white’ Commonwealth countries – Canada, Australia and New Zealand -countries whose ‘origins’ and national pride lie in the bloodbath of the First World War. The white poppy has also made its appearance in these countries – most visibly in Canada.
For a number of years Canadian peace groups have made their own white poppies and in recent years have also been getting them from the Peace Pledge Union. In 2006 the Royal Canadian Legion noticed this and viewed it as an undesirable development and set its lawyers on the main Canadian distributor and the Peace Pledge Union. This action gained considerable publicity in the Canadian media and resulted in widespread support and a substantial increased sale of white poppies in Canada.
Under legal pressure the shop distributing the white poppies regrettably stopped distribution but many other Canadians have offered to take over in 2007.
Independent young people whether in school, scouts, church or some other groups are not infrequently asked to remove their white poppy. Sean’s story is one of many examples. At Sean’s school, as in many other schools each November, white poppies were on sale side by side with red ones. Teachers wanted to provide children with the opportunity to think about war and its causes and let pupils choose how they responded to it.
Sean chose the white poppy, which he felt most reflected what he felt, and bought it with his pocket money. He wore it proudly at the Sunday Scouts parade. But his Scoutmaster told him to take it off: it was, he said, ‘not an appropriate symbol for Remembrance Day’, and he gave Sean a red poppy to wear instead. Sean well understood the significance of the white poppy, and did not see why he should not be able to wear it in church or anywhere else. The vicar who officiated at the service thought the same, and said he was pleased to welcome anybody into church whether they were wearing a white poppy or a red one. What did Sean do with his white poppy? ‘I put it back on as soon as I went outside.’
Whilst many schools make white poppies available to their pupils and see their use as an educational exercise some schools are resistant to what they call propaganda. Some schools that have decided to have white poppies available have withdrawn them after a protest, usually by no more that one or two parents, but accompanied by ‘shock horror’ headlines in the local paper.
The British Legion in some quarters has ‘assumed’ a status that few feel able to challenge – not to wear a red poppy is to be disrespectful of those who ‘gave their all’ and for those who believe in this dishonest formulation social and peer pressure are enough for compliance. To a few, for a variety of reasons, the red poppy is a significant and meaningful symbol but that is not the case for most poppy wearers. It is worth noting that the red poppy is the ONLY symbol that the BBC allows to be worn on screen by newscasters, that the police allow officer to wear when in uniform; other institutions have a similar policy.
Here is what David Jordan Head of BBC Editorial Policy had to say on Red Poppies [PM November 2007]
The last 25 years have seen the biggest growth of ‘war memorial’ building since the end of the First World War and attendance at Remembrance Day ceremonies which has been steadily decreasing since the end of WW2 began to grow. There are a number of reasons for this, which we look at elsewhere. As well as the memorial makers and builders all kind of groups and institutions benefit from this atmosphere, not least the Royal British Legion, who even before the latest of Britains’ wars insisted that it needed ever more money each year for what must by the nature of things be an ever declining number of ex military personnel that it cares for. Britain’s recent lunatic and illegal activities in Iraq and Afghanistan inevitably entered into the Legion’s fund raising message; while not actually bellicose nonetheless the Legion supports the view that war is a proper function of the state.
This may not be stated as plainly as that but like the dog that did not bark in the night the absence of questions about the validity let alone morality of the governments war policies is a clue. The Legion criticised the government for the often appalling way the it treats its employees in the armed forces but it never criticises the decision which lead to the death, injury or mental instability of the people it wishes to support. The Legion would argue that that is not their business, though it could equally well be argued that issues of war and peace are every citizens business.
The Legion describes itself as the ‘nation’s de facto custodian of Remembrance, ensuring that people remember those who have given their lives for the freedom we enjoy’ In other words it has taken upon itself the task of telling us how wonderful those who choose to go to war are and how much we should be grateful to them; and the ‘best’ way to show our gratitude is to give money to the Royal British Legion. This is moral blackmail which some support and others succumb to and pin up a red poppy. It is also simplistic and questionable whether those who ‘have given their lives’ did so ‘for the freedom we enjoy’.
Despite its annual proximity to Remembrance Sunday I can never recall seeing anyone at the Anarchist Bookfair wearing a poppy. Maybe this year – as the outporing – indeed out of the closet – support for our WW2 fighters on the previous post demonstrates – some poppy wearers might be a first step before we contemplate a wreath laying at local war memorials or the Cenotaph. Certainly anything at the Cenotaph ought to be heartfelt and low key……..but we really ought to be reclaiming the day from Royals and Party leaders.It was our fucking class that won the war – maybe at long last we can show some pride in it.
It may be that after all it wasn’t my generation of 1968 that were the true radicals but our boring old mums and dads in their stuffy clothes and values that were the truly radical generation – fighting the war, bringing in the Labour landslide of 45, voting in Communists, ILP ers and the almost anarcho-utopian Commonweal party in the war. As always Orwell summed up the Left’s problem with patriotism and derided how out of touch with our people they were. Orwell said it was the upper class and the working class who valued physical courage and bravery – the middle class sneered and mocked it…….check out how that pans out in our movement now comrades.For Orwell in 1940 that meant dismissing the leftie pacifists and turning the forerunner of the Home Guard into a revolutionary fighting force. He even imported Spanish anarchists to teach petrolbomb throwing in sedate OSterley Park! We need a similar sea change in our attitde to our Englishness and our recent history.