Using the Poppy as a reminder of WW1

Peter Stead revisits the debate around whether we should all wear poppies as a commemoration of the events of World War One.

As the Centenary progresses the First World War is very much with us and that is especially the case with regard to our veneration of the red artificial poppy. 2016 will go down as marking the annual commemoration in which the role of the Poppy was discussed and debated as never before.

The whole issue of Commemoration is still dominated by our perception and understanding of the Great War of 1914-18 and in particular the Western Front. British and Commonwealth soldiers have died in many wars and in many far flung places but it was the battles on the Somme and around Ypres that determined the ritual of Commemoration. It is not difficult to see why that should be the case.

Some 725,000 British troops died in the Great War and a further 1.75 million were disabled, casualties largely inflicted on the Western Front and figures that to an extent were anticipated by the British military command. The unique and reverent commemoration of War that began in 1919 was motivated by profound gratitude but was also fired by guilt at the sacrifice that had been demanded.

The dreadful reality of that sacrifice was intensified by the vivid imagery of the fighting that had been established by film, photography, paintings, poems and memoirs. As Paul Fussell brilliantly argued in his The Great War and Modern Memory, that singular landscape of the trenches, located just 70 miles from England, 150 from London, was to be forever lodged in the British imagination. From the outset the Poppy was central both to that whole mental landscape and its accompanying reverence.

There was nothing inevitable about the rapid emergence of the poppy as ikon. As Fussell shows the English developed an ironically pastoral notion of Picardy and Flanders but there were other plants and wildlife more common than the poppy. Furthermore the poppy had played a vital role in causing the nineteenth century Opium Wars, a far from glorious chapter in the rise of Empire, as well as having homoerotic associations. In his 1873 painting Monet had established the poppy’s place in defining the rural beauty of France but it was that stunning blood red colour of the flower that had come to remind poets vividly of what so often now lay in the mud beneath.

It is generally accepted that it was North American poets who first established the suitability of the poppy for commemoration and who then drew it to the attention of Field Marshall Haig and the British Legion. British poets however had already explained the emotional power of the flower and even the way it might be symbolic. Fussell highlights Isaac Rosenberg’s poem Break of Day in the Trenches:

       Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins

       Drop, and are ever dropping

       But mine in my ear is safe,

       Just a little white with the dust.

A continuing understanding of the sacrifices of 1914-18, the power of the artificial poppy and further and often controversial wars have guaranteed that commemoration of the dead and the disabled remains important in the lives of many people. Its importance in our national culture makes necessary the work of veterans and charitable institutions. What the mounting debate of 2016 has made clear, however, is that the act of commemoration must remain a matter for individuals who must be free to choose their own form of commemoration or indeed to ignore it.

Every individual and every family will have their own experiences and take on military sacrifice and that varying degree of suffering has to be respected. But every individual and family will also have their own notions of how sacrifice relates to national or political identity. These differences too have to be respected but not necessarily commemorated in any proscribed way. No political party, TV producer or public organisation has the right to demand the wearing of a poppy. At first the sudden preponderance of poppies adorning TV personnel and politicians from about mid-October seemed a little premature if not ostentatious. Then things grew worse and Jon Snow, Robert Fisk and others were right to come up with the notion of ‘Poppy Fascism’.

Of course FIFA were wrong in identifying the poppy as a purely political symbol but there was undoubtedly an element of unnecessary ostentation and throwing-around-of-weight on the part of the English and Scottish football chiefs. A request that fans wear poppies, a moment’s silence and the announcement that gate receipts would be donated to disabled veterans and their chosen charities would have indicated a degree of mature statesmanship. In what has become a secular age governments, political parties, public and voluntary organisations use political correctness as a way of enhancing their moral status and cementing the loyalty of followers. Of course prejudice has to be exposed but identity and values, both personal and public are more valid when personally determined rather than following regimentation. We all need to reflect on warfare and its social and personal implications but these thing can be understood and expressed in a variety of ways without needing enforced fashionable gestures. The Poppy is a lovely symbol but we are all free to use it as we choose.

Peter Stead is a Welsh writer, broadcaster and historian.

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