A day to remember: Poppy Day

11 November 2013 | ResolutionPossible

This is the second blog in our armed conflict series. Here we explore the concept of Remembrance Day, or Poppy Day as many of us have come to know it. Who do we remember when we talk about ‘the fallen’? And will there ever be a time when war is a thing of the past and remembering is all we need to do?

Every year in the weeks running up to the 11th of November, people around the UK (and around the world) wear red poppies as a symbol of solidarity with those who have served and are still serving in the armed forces, and their families. The tradition of the red poppy was inspired by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields‘, written by a doctor serving with the Canadian armed forces moved by the sight of the mass of red poppies growing in the Belgian fields that saw some of the worst fighting of the First World War. The armistice that ended the fighting was signed in 1918 at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a date and time chosen to remember the fallen soldiers of that war ever since. Poppies were first adopted by the American Legion, with other countries following suit. Today, they are mainly used in the UK and Canada, and represent all servicemen killed in conflict since 1914. In the UK, poppies are sold as part of the Royal British Legion’s ‘Poppy Appeal’, which started back in the 1920s as a way to raise money for the Legion and provide work to disabled veterans.

White and red poppies

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.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders’ fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.

— John McCrae, 1915

Lest we forget?

The 11th of November, Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, or Poppy Day as many now know it, is about remembering – yet we seem to have forgotten something crucial about this war fought between 1914 and 1918. Still often referred to as the Great War, it was meant to have been the ‘war that ends all wars’. Just 21 years later, however, the Second World War broke out. Many who fought in the first war returned to the front lines in the second. Some argue that the conflict never really ended, that the period between the two wars was simply ‘21 years of rising tension between the former combatants until finally Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939′. Next year marks one hundred years since the Great War broke out, this war to end all wars, yet war is still an everyday reality for millions of people around the world.

Remembering civilians

Remembering is important; remembering how we got to where we are today, remembering the sacrifices of the generations before us. The intent of this particular day is to focus on ‘service personnel‘ – yesterday a BBC commentator mentioned nine Britons killed in action this year. Yet there was no specific tribute paid to the thousands of civilians killed or harmed in conflict, the people whose lives are irrevocably changed. These civilians remain anonymous.  Today, soldiers have a choice to join the army, knowing that they may end up on the front lines of a conflict. Civilians, however, have no choice about the wars waged in their neighbourhoods.

The Black Poppy - poster at SOAS

Poppies of other colours

Different coloured poppies have emerged to address the other faces of war, though none as visible as the familiar red poppy. White poppies first appeared in 1933 and were worn by the families of those who objected to fighting and were consequently imprisoned. It represents a movement of people who lost loved ones in the Great War, a symbol to ‘challenge the continuing drive to war’. The white poppy supports conscientious objection.

A few days ago when walking through the SOAS campus in London we passed a poster bearing a black poppy. Whereas the white poppy poses a challenge to war itself, the black poppy asks us to extend our thoughts beyond service personnel to all those who have suffered and continue to suffer from the consequences of war.

ResPoss asks

Why do you think other poppies such as the white and the black one are not as widely known as the red poppy? Should they be?

Yesterday, the mother of a soldier who was killed in Afghanistan told the BBC: “The job that they do is so hard and so tough and when somebody loses their life, it’s just one little thing that you can do just to remember them for a few minutes”. Do you feel that wearing a poppy other than the red one can be viewed as disrespectful to service personnel and their families?

Does the emphasis of the red poppy tradition on paying tribute to the military soldiers have the effect of glorifying war?

Do you think the ambition for the Great War to be the ‘war that ends all wars’ was realistic? Can there ever be an end to war, or do you think conflict is inevitable?

Do you have a similar tradition of remembrance where you are? How do you feel about it?

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