At 5am on 11th November 1918 in the personal railway carriage of Ferdinand Foch the Généralissime of the Allied Armies an armistice agreement which ended the Great War was signed. For poetic licence it was agreed that this would come into place at 11am so that in years to come school children could recite that in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the most terrible of wars came to an end. (Interestingly it has been claimed repeatedly that 10am to 11am that day was the bloodiest of the war. Of the truth in this fact I am not sure.) So egregious was this capitulation perceived in Germany that in 1940 when the Nazis quickly defeated the French, they were forced to sign their own humiliating armistice in the exact same railway carriage with a gloating Hitler taking place of the smug Foch. However this article is not about either war but about how they are remembered in Britain through wearing poppies on lapels.
As had occurred during the Napoleonic wars a century before, the poppy flower grew amongst dead bodies and battlefields of war. It was the only plant to do so. Stricken by the terrible beauty of this image a Canadian doctor Lt Col John McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields. After the war an American academic named Moina Michael taught a class of disabled servicemen in Georgia and became aware of the support that these veterans needed from charities, as they certainly weren’t receiving it from their government. Taking inspiration from McCrae’s poem, she began to raise money by selling silk poppies for their cause. The National American Legion soon adopted it as their symbol of remembrance.
This idea and practice was brought to Britain by a French lady named Anna Guerin and adopted by the controversial Douglas Haig for the newly created Royal British Legion. In 1921 was the first national Poppy Appeal in Britain with £106,000 being raised. One year later a factory was set up on Old Kent Road where disabled ex-servicemen made the poppies. In Scotland Haig’s wife set up ‘lady Haig’s Poppy Factory’ to supply demand there.
Today the poppy is controversial, but when did this controversy begin? Most likely during the 1960s as a patriotic backlash when revisionist history became popular. One need look no further than Blackadder and Oh! What A Lovely War to access these viewpoints. But do they tell us more about the time in which they were created than about World War One itself?
In Northern Ireland poppies are worn almost as a symbol of Britishness and rejected by nationalists due to the actions of the British army during the Troubles period. The horrific Remembrance Day bombing at Enniskillen by the IRA displayed extreme republican attitudes to what the poppy stood for in that divided society.
In Britain the controversy erupts annually despite the Royal British Legion’s statement that to wear a poppy is a personal decision, not a reflection of politics and not compulsory. Jon Snow explained his decision not to wear one onscreen branding the culture as ‘poppy fascism’. Even this week a Derry-born footballer James McClean had to justify his decision not to wear one in an open letter to his employer after sparking controversy when he refused to wear one last year. Yet the debate drags on…
So let us now judge how other countries remember their war dead. Let us begin with Russia. After all in the last 100 years they have lost over 30 million people in war. Indeed 80% of Russian males born in 1921 did not survive World War Two. Victory Day, which is celebrated on 9th May marks the defeat of the Nazis in the ‘Great Patriotic War’. This day is observed in 20 other nations from Israel to the Channel Islands. This was traditionally celebrated in true Soviet military style however became less and less popular during the 1990s. In 2005 it was rebranded, proclaimed a national holiday and three years later military style parades including fighter jet fly-bys were reintroduced. By this logic commemoration certainly reflects the present day society more than the individuals in it.
Now let’s have a look at Britain’s old enemy; their dear ally in the twentieth century, France. They are commemorating the war by organising 1,500 exhibitions, concerts, ceremonies, debates and public events as well as inviting representatives from all countries who served in France during the First World War. In addition 11th November is a public holiday, unlike in Britain. Yet there is no symbol like a poppy which the public are expected to wear.
Without a doubt the wearing of a poppy and indeed remembrance itself has become politicised in Britain, to what extent though is up for discussion. Surely remembrance, like grieving, should be a personal act and the government should take care of veterans who need care. Either way one cannot doubt that it positively reflects on a society which graciously remembers those who fought for it and without attempting to profit from it, especially in the political arena. As long those who choose not to wear poppies don’t end up like Kramer when he doesn’t wear an AIDS ribbon, then I’m satisfied…