Sunday, 12 November 2017

Remembrance Day & Poppy Symbolism

Today is recognised as Remembrance Day in the UK and the headlines predicted up to 30% of young Britons would not be supporting this year's Poppy Appeal.

Remembrance Day is celebrated on November 11th in the UK as the anniversary of the armistice between the Allies and Germany signed in 1918. This ended fighting on the Western Front and symbolises the end of war, associated with the message "never again." This is a day in which we remember members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty. Red poppies are worn as a symbol for the blood spilled in the war as the poppy is said to be the first flower to bloom from the destroyed Flanders Fields battlefields. So why is there such a decline in support of such an important part of our national history?


Remembrance Sunday has become synonymous with the Royal British Legion who sell the poppies we wear on Remembrance Day. The most common imagery associated with a red poppy is from World Wars I and II, yet the Royal British Legion is a charity which supports the British Armed Forces community both past and present, therefore their Poppy Appeal represents all conflicts the UK been involved in, not just WWI and WWII. Yet the appeal rarely features the victims and families of more recent wars due to a lack of public support for these conflicts.

My colleague described her grandfather before he died describing World War II as a "bloodbath", which is why she chooses not to wear a red poppy, as we have clearly not learnt from our mistakes having instigated and involved ourselves in so many conflicts despite the end of the "war to end all wars." Despite the fact that many choose to wear a poppy in remembrance of those lost in World Wars I and II, we can't escape the irony of last year's public vote to leave the EU and the way it has isolated our country from the Allies who fought with us in these wars and sacrificed their lives for our mutual cause. Surely those who fought for us would be saddened that so many voted for our independence, turning our backs on the bonds they fought together to build and to which we owe our lives.

When we wear our poppies in unison, in the context of Remembrance, many consider the red poppy to reinforce support and acceptance of the military and as an association with the justification of war - it would feel entirely different if the red poppies on Flanders Fields symbolised the end of all war as per the original message. Instead the pressure to wear a red poppy in this context often contributes to a nasty streak of extreme nationalism, where those in the public eye who do not wear a poppy are vilified for not conforming to a public expectation and being "disrespectful" to troops yet wearing symbols of other charities is rarely as widely supported and certainly not obligated (for example, wearing a red ribbon for World Aids Day.) It seems a stretch to take the absence of a paper flower as an outright insult but the witch hunt for those who do not conform goes on as ever.

Personally I feel it is important to remember the 11th November as a huge part of world history but can understand the sense of disdain over the symbolism of Remembrance Day being muddied with values that may not convey the original purpose and message of the anniversary. For this reason, this year I chose to wear a purple poppy from Crown and Glory instead, as the profits are donated to Animal Aid and is a symbol that remembers the animals killed in the war. A white poppy is also a popular alternative choice, donating money to the Peace Pledge Union and representing remembrance for all victims of war (military and civilian of all nationalities) and a commitment to peace. They challenge the notion of glamourising or celebrating war and remember those who were killed or imprisoned for resisting war or refusing to fight.

Wherever we choose to donate our money (if we are in the position to make a donation) we should never feel obligated to donate to a specific charity because it is the accepted choice. Not all charities are as fortunate as the Royal British Legion to have a nationally recognised fundraising day from which they receive millions of pounds of donations, and it is important to recognise that so many charities do wonderful work and need our support so it is always okay to choose to donate to something closer to your own heart and home. There are so many worthy causes out there and giving to any charity does not negate the good work done by all of the others. Most of all when we wear a symbol like the poppy it is vital that we question what it means to us and what we are standing for when we wear it before we choose to conform.
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