In the run-up to and in the days following Remembrance Sunday, it is sagacious to reflect on the poppy – how it became one of today’s most recognisable national symbols, and how, once a year, it works to reinforce our sense of shared nationhood and solidarity.
The poppy as a symbol of remembrance has its roots in the fields and plains of the First World War. The poppy flower was commonly seen growing on the upturned earth of warfare, growing best on soil that had been churned and disturbed; thus the poppy was extremely capable of growing on these otherwise barren lands. As such, the pretty flowers were a common sight for soldiers fighting on the front lines, offering a sign of life in an otherwise devastated and desolate landscape.
It was the enduring persistence of the poppy flower that inspired the now-famous wartime poem “In Flanders Fields”, penned by Colonel John McCrae, which he wrote from the trenches of Ypres, Belgium. He was posted as a doctor to aid the injured soldiers, and through written accounts he expressed his great distress over the extent of the casualties he was witnessing. In a letter to his mother, John wrote:
The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds.
“In Flanders Fields” was inspired by the death of John’s friend, killed the day before the writing of the poem. John, who felt unable to help both his friend and the others who succumbed to death, wrote the poem with the aim of giving the fallen one last voice, fixed through time itself.
The tradition of wearing a poppy started with American humanitarian and academic Moina Michael, who read the poem and was subsequently inspired to wear her own to commemorate the fallen. It quickly spread, and at its inception in 1921, the Royal British Legion (RBL) purchased 9 million of the poppies to sell on 11 November that year. This was the first ever Poppy Appeal, and the RBL have been producing and selling poppies ever since.
As well as helping us to remember those we have lost, the poppy reinforces our shared sense of nationhood. We come together as one by mourning both those who served during the world wars and those who offer their continued service to our country today, as well as the families who have lost loved ones. Yet, despite the poppy’s noble roots, it attracts controversy today from organisations such as FIFA, who banned the wearing of the poppy during a football match, and the BBC, who banned it during the filming of the popular daytime show Flog It!. Some feel unfairly compelled to wear the poppy (otherwise crudely known as “poppy fascism”), whilst some on the left feel as though it perpetuates and justifies war and that wearing the poppy therefore legitimates the military and its actions.
These arguments fundamentally undermine the reason the poppy exists as a symbol at all – to remind us of the ultimate sacrifice those serving gave us to allow our freedoms. Choosing whether or not to wear the poppy should remind us that we do, indeed, have the right to choose as we wish. However, the practices that FIFA and the BBC have adopted should come under intense scrutiny, both for twisting the poppy into a political issue, and for undermining those who choose to mourn, repressing the ideal of freedom of choice that our nation prides itself upon – an ideal that is essentially epitomised by the symbol of the poppy.
The UCLU Conservative Society have been supporting the important work of the RBL for many years now, and we will continue to raise money and show our support for the soldiers, and the families of soldiers, past and present.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
by Poppy Harris, Social Action Officer of the UCLU Conservative Society 2016-17