With the debate surrounding the politics and expectations of wearing a poppy reigniting each year around Remembrance Sunday, Orla Newstead questions whether the poppy is still an effective act of remembrance, or if it is now synonymous with those who utilise it for political cause.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now lie,
In Flanders fields.
On Sunday 14th November, veterans, civilians, and serving members of the armed forces gathered across the country to pay respect to the fallen men and women who sacrificed their lives to serve this country. On the shirt of every single person you can guarantee the presence of the flower that has become synonymous with remembrance: the poppy.
Do poppies hold the same value to the twenty-first century civilian as it did to those who experienced those wars?
Poppies have been worn to remember those who have died in war since the establishment of the Royal British Legion in 1921. On the Western Front, French scenery was obliterated into wasteland where no wildlife thrived with the exception of the striking red poppy. The poppy’s survival amongst the destruction and conflict inspired John McCrae to write his famous poem In Flanders Fields. This, in turn, encouraged Moina Michael to campaign for the poppy to become a universal symbol of remembrance and it has remained so ever since.
However, as the number of World War veterans begins to dwindle, the horrific collective memories these people experienced fades with them. We’ve all heard stories from our loved ones about the sheer upheaval caused by the World Wars– I myself have been told stories by my great grandmother about the commitment she had to make to her country, and the realities that she faced at just eighteen years of age. Realities that those of us born after these wars could scarcely imagine.
Remembrance Day and the poppy back in the twentieth century provided an opportunity for people to commemorate those they truly loved, but can any of us relate to this anymore? Do poppies hold the same value to the twenty-first century civilian as it did to those who experienced those wars?
Despite this, Remembrance Sunday is still a crucial day for society to reflect on not just the World Wars, but for all British conflicts. The Royal British Legion states that Remembrance Sunday is a day to ‘remember those who lost their lives on active service in all conflicts; from the beginning of the First World War right up to the present day.’ On the second Sunday in November, the same rituals are followed: wreaths are laid, a two-minute silence is held, and poppies are worn by all in attendance.
Wearing poppies has become like second nature to us, so much so that when this tradition is challenged it creates controversy. Perhaps one of the most notable cases of this is when Charlene White, an ITV presenter, refused to wear a poppy when broadcasting in 2020 in order to remain neutral and not show preference to RBL over the various other charities she supports. Following her choice to not wear one, White was inundated with abuse over Twitter, but she chose to repeat this action this year. Similarly, Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow wrote a blogpost in 2006 explaining his intention to not wear a poppy and accused his critics of ‘poppy fascism’, linking the idea of wearing a poppy to political ideology.
It is not unreasonable, therefore, to doubt the government’s sincerity around supporting men and women in arms by simply wearing a poppy
It is difficult to ignore this concept of poppies and politics overlapping as just this year the government stated its plan to cut the number of troops in the British Army by 9,500 by 2025, despite Boris Johnson and the Conservative party pledging not to reduce the size of the troops during the 2019 general election. On November 11th, Johnson tweeted: ‘This year, as every year, we will wear our poppies with pride.’
The government’s mixed messaging around the armed forces is not an isolated incident. During the first lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic, every Thursday at 8pm people all across the country took to their doorsteps to “clap for carers” and the government labelled healthcare professionals as key workers, and then proceeded to give nurses a pay cut, regardless of their sacrifice during this period.
It is not unreasonable, therefore, to doubt the government’s sincerity around supporting men and women in arms by simply wearing a poppy. In fact, if the government values servicemen and women then the fact that two-thirds of women in the armed forces have experienced sexual harassment and discrimination during their career should be shocking- the state needs to do more to protect those who serve.
The way to show the nation’s appreciation is by being active and effecting change, not by sticking a bit of paper and plastic on our shirts
Nobody can deny that the work the armed forces do is crucial: as well as preventing and responding to international conflict, and deploying aid to countries in need, they do valuable work within this country. Just this year, they have been helping with the Coronavirus vaccination programme.
Because of this, a passive act like wearing a poppy does not fully demonstrate appreciation for the work the armed forces do for this country. The way to show the nation’s appreciation is by being active and effecting change, not by sticking a bit of paper and plastic on our shirts once a year and repeating ‘lest we forget.’
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