In Britain, as we approach November the 11th it is customary to remember those who lost their lives in the First World War. From day one in primary school we engaged in the two-minute silence at 11 o’clock every year. It was a mandatory occasion and one that was drilled into me throughout most of my education. However, wearing the poppy as a symbol of remembrance has recently declined. People are rejecting it – arguing that it is a symbol of nationalism, as the red poppy is symbolic of only the Britons who died. Many claim that the poppy has lost its original meaning in the chaos of modern life. So, should we wear a poppy? Does it ignite a love of war? Nationalism? Are there other more effective ways to remember?
Maybe wearing the poppy has lost its meaning; as the millennial generation are turning into fully fledged adults, maybe it’s easier for us to not appreciate the horrors of war as there has never been a fully global conflict of such nature since. Maybe our generation will be remembered as the ones who forgot the sacrifices of their great grandparents or even grandparents, but I don’t think so. Our remembrance will simply be in different ways to how it is socially accepted now.
This debate came to mind after witnessing author of How to Stay Alive, Matt Haig receive a hurling of abuse on twitter after posting this tweet:
“I’m not wearing a poppy this year. I think it is shifting from a symbol remembering war’s horror, to a symbol of war-hungry nationalism.”
There are plenty of arguments that claim the poppy is in fact a symbol of nationalism, as is it only remembers the British soldiers who died on the battlefield. Wearing a poppy that symbolises the remembrance of one nation may forget the others. What about the casualties in Germany, India, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa – do they not deserve remembering? It seems to me that in remembering only our dead it obscures the realities of war. It plays into the dangers of singular narratives and not being able to see the bigger picture. Although I do not subscribe to the view that all poppy wearers are people hungry for war and nationalism necessarily, I do think it can be easy to forget about the rest of the world, when our culture is affiliated to one form of remembrance.
The growth of people wearing white poppies which are part of the Peace Pledge Union are becoming far more common. A white poppy is symbolic of the desire for peace and aim to challenge the glorification of war. But most importantly, they are worn to remember all of those who died in every conflict. The message of these poppies resonate more with me than those of the traditional red poppy, however they are banned from the Remembrance Day Service in the UK. This may support the poppy’s symbolism of nationalism as it is the only form allowed in the national service.
For people of prominence and who have significance in the public eye – a poppy is mandatory between the 31st of October and the 11th of November. Someone appearing on the BBC for example, would not be able to abstain from wearing a poppy. Poppy etiquette has become so ingrained in our culture that abstaining from wearing it is seen as offensive, but this is assuming that the person does not wish to remember or appreciate those people who gave their lives in war. As Matt Haig so rightfully pointed out, remembrance is not confined to a national symbol. Remembrance can be personal and private, it does not have to be publicly displayed in a national light. It does not have to endorse the image of war when it can endorse peace. As a writer, Matt Haig likes to remember with the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Both eliminate the horrors of the war and reading these poems also should be considered an act of remembrance. Words have power too.
On November 11th, thousands of Britons will wear a poppy – it is a marker of our tradition and is part of our culture, and for some, would be hard to abandon. The poppy aims to serve a remembrance to those who died for us today; taken with just this meaning then the poppy should stay. A poppy worn for nationalistic pride and the support of war should be questioned. Above all, wearing a white poppy that is symbolic of universal peace and remembrance should not be banned from our national remembrance, and it is worrying that it is. Remembrance should be viewed as personal and private, as well as public and we should not scorn those who abstain from wearing it. We may be too quick to judge as it is so ingrained in our culture, but remembrance of war is done in so many more ways than one.