The Symbolism of Poppies

red and white poppies

Why is the poppy used as a symbol of remembrance?

The battle scenes of WW1 reduced previously beautiful landscapes of Western Europe to bleak, barren, muddy wastelands. The notable and striking exception to the bleakness were the swathes of bright red poppies that flourished in Flanders. These delicate yet surprisingly resilient flowers inspired a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, to write the poem In Flander’s Fields in memory of a friend of his who was killed at Ypres.

In Flander’s Fields
(first verse)

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.

The poem, in turn, inspired Moina Michael, an American professor and humanitarian, to use the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. After the war, Michael taught a class of disabled servicemen. Realizing the need to provide financial and occupational support for these servicemen, she pursued the idea of selling red silk poppies as a means of raising funds to assist disabled veterans.

Red Poppies

Moina Michael in turn inspired a French woman, Anna Guérin, to mass-produce poppies and sell them in America in 1920. Guérin persuaded Field Marshal Haig, founder of the Royal British Legion, to launch the first “Poppy day” appeal in Britain in 1921.

Today the red poppy is the trademark and the main fundraising device of The Royal British Legion. This year the Poppy Appeal is aiming to raise over £50 million to help support serving and ex-serving members of the Armed Forces community and their families.

White Poppies

White poppies are sometimes confused with white flags or white feathers but they are not the same. White feathers, at least in countries of the former British Empire, have been symbols of cowardice since at least the 18th century and particularly since the foundation of the Order of the White Feather in August 1914 as means of shaming men into enlisting. In other cultures, the white feather has different meanings including a symbol of bravery, passive resistance and a place of safety. White flags denoting surrender date back over 2,000 and would have been familiar to the armies of the Roman and the Chinese empires. Several theories exist as to how these symbolic meanings came into being.

The white poppy, on the other hand, was the result of a conscious decision to create a symbol that conveyed an even wider message than the red poppy.

In 1926, a few years after the introduction of the red poppy in the UK, the idea of pacifists making their own poppies was put forward by a member of the No More War Movement (as well as the proposal that the black centre of the British Legion’s red poppies should be imprinted with “No More War”). Their intention was to remember all casualties of all wars (including civilian, military and millions who have been made sick or homeless by war) with the added meaning of a hope for the end of all wars.

The first white poppies were in fact sold by the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1933. The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) took part in their distribution from 1936, and white poppy wreaths were laid from 1937 as a pledge to peace that war must not happen again. The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) is the oldest secular pacifist organisation in Britain and has been campaigning for a warless world since 1934 and continues to sell white poppies to this day.

According to UNICEF, the percentage of wartime fatalities that are civilian has climbed from 5 per cent at the turn of the century to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s, with many of the victims being children.

Red or white?

In my view, red and white poppies do not need to be mutually exclusive. I have respect and gratitude for individual servicemen and women who sacrifice their health and lives, alongside a deep conviction that war should be avoided at all costs.

The Peace Pledge Union website states: “Many white poppy wearers make donations to charities supporting veterans or other victims of war. The Peace Pledge Union has no desire to undermine such charity, while also believing that people in need should be supported by a decent welfare state and not expected to rely on charity. They point out the hypocrisy of governments that can find public money to wage wars but not to support those who have been injured or traumatised in them.”

There is much vitriolic debate about poppy colour but The Royal British Legion itself says that it’s a matter of preference. On social media last year the organisation said “Please do not target people online like that for exercising their right to debate the poppy. We don’t condone that at all – it’s a personal choice.”

Both world wars were fought to preserve a number of liberties including the freedom of expression. The white poppy has been adopted by many as symbol of their attitude to conflict and war. To wear a poppy of any colour seems to me to be remembering all those who died or suffered in these wars in exactly this spirit.

I have a personal connection with WW1 which has informed my own view of the world. My grandfather Harry Locke, a Quaker, was badly wounded in WWI when a shell hit the vehicle he was driving. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery by the French government because the vehicle he was driving was an ambulance. Like many conscientious objectors, Harry did not want to kill but he was prepared to die on the front line saving others.

Including white in my poppy seems to me to be a suitable way to remember his contribution. Many of my Quaker friends wear red and white together to acknowledge that everyone involved was seeking peace in their own way and with sincere conviction.

Purple Poppies

And we mustn’t forget purple poppies which were created in 2006 by the charity Animal Aid as a way to commemorate the forgotten victims of war: animals. Historically these have been horses and donkeys (eight million of which died during the First World War) but today the most common animal that dies in war is the military working dog. Animal Aid continued to sell the purple poppy with proceeds going to them until 2015 when they replaced the symbol with an enamel purple paw badge as they felt the poppy was misinterpreting the animals as heroes. Ex-director of Animal Aid Andrew Tyler explains, “Our aim was to make it clear that animals used in warfare are indeed victims, not heroes. They do not give their lives; their lives are taken from them.” The purple poppy symbol was subsequently picked up by the Murphy’s Army charity in 2016 which continues to sell them.

 

Everyone has their own reasons for choosing a red, white or purple poppy, a two-tone one, all three or, indeed, no poppy at all. Each is relevant to the feelings of the wearer and thus equally valid.

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