Wearing poppies has become far more controversial than in any period since this British initiative of remembrance began in 1921. For example, white poppies, first introduced by the Peace Union in 1933 as a non-militaristic alternative to red ones, have been increasingly criticised by the political right. In 2017 the British national football associations became engaged in a dispute with FIFA about the wearing of poppies on their countries’ football shirts. In 2018 someone was sacked for refusing to deliver poppies in their taxi. There have been many additional minor incidents.
Originally red poppy wearing was broadly consensual, with a large majority understanding it as an act of common humanity. The explicitly nationalistic, and hence militaristic, dimension was there, but recently it has come more to the forefront. It is a source of political division.
During the inter-war years, especially, European veterans’ organisations were usually associated with right wing politics, and in Britain, the United States and some other countries the poppy was quickly adopted by them. However, two key features of that era muted controversy over the red poppy.
Few who participated in the Great War were professional soldiers, and after 1916 nearly all recruits in the military were conscripts. The armies were also enormous. Thus, there was a direct impact of the military carnage on many families (my grandfathers and my three great uncles all served in that war, one of whom died in it). There was a shared communal sense of loss and remembrance that would be reproduced in the Second World War, and to a much lesser extent in Korea.
During my teenage years in the 1960s the wearing of poppies by the young declined, not so much from an overt anti-militarism but as the direct impact on families of the wars’ consequences waned. To someone of my generation the revival of poppy wearing in the last few decades seems curious. The proportion of the population serving in the armed services is small compared with decades ago, and modern military technology means that the proportion of their personnel exposed to real danger is tiny. A modern military is composed exclusively of professionals who have chosen it as a career.
Yet earlier quiet bereavements and burials have now given away to crowd-lined streets when coffins return to Britain, and the wearing of poppies is virtually compulsory for all appearing on non-entertainment programmes on television. Certainly, there is a strong argument for public recognition and remembrance of those, on behalf of the public, who choose to take on careers that may well involve injury and death. Many of those making that choice cannot possibly understand the trauma they are likely to experience – from both physical and mental injury. That they are paid to do their jobs does not mean that they must have understood what they could face.
In this context the problem posed by the poppy appeal is its exclusive focus on the military – rather than its being an activity shared with those, including firefighters and the police, who are also engaged in jobs for the public that might leave them severely “damaged”. Had it taken this form in recent decades, the emerging controversies about remembrance would have been stillborn.
To many, wearing poppies and public displays over the death of military personnel are just acts of a shared humanity; they are not acts of nationalistic celebration. And this, of course, was how poppies were widely understood originally. However, in a country that is now multicultural in its composition, the places in which British forces are engaged are often locales where some opposition and controversy will inevitably ensue (British forces are hardly likely to intervene in places like New Zealand).