Last month a new report hit the tabloid headlines stating “ Poppy Sellers Banned from City Centre”. The report followed a story whereby Royal British Legion Poppy Sellers were to be stopped from selling in Birmingham City Centre during the last few days before Remembrance Sunday this year, due to other charities taking precedence.
This caused uproar within the social and networking arenas, as it had on previous years when stories of shop assistants, UK journalists and schoolchildren arose, having been banned for wearing the poppy for aesthetic, ethical and social reasons respectively.
This week saw fresh prejudice reports of facebook messages showing posters and banners against poppies.. presumably subliminal messages but with hard-hitting repurcussions.
Taking these issues into account, maybe it was time to go back to the drawing board and exercise a fresh view of the poppy’s history to unravel the cause of discontent. Should we be concerned about what a symbol officially means?
At the beginning of this great journey my first question was: What does wearing a poppy mean? The official and unanimous answer to this was ‘lest we forget.’ At one time this was translated to ‘lest we forget that soldiers died so that we could be free’. Now sometimes one could be forgiven for wondering if it has come to mean ‘lest we forget that war is hell’. Synonymous with War Memorials, the red poppy is always worn on Remembrance day, November 11th ( originally also known as Armistice Day).
Now for the historical bit:
The origin of the poppy tradition rests with three people, Major John McCrae, a Medical Officer with the 1st.Canadian Contingent at the battle of the Ypres salient in May 1915. Secondly in the melting pot came Miss Moira Michael~ Secretary of the American YMCA and thirdly, Madam Guerin, Secretary of the French YMCA , 1918.
Initially, apalled at the slaughter caused by the seventeen day Ypres battle Major McCrae famously wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’:
In Flanders’ Fields
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. ( excerpt)
Published in the London magazine ‘Punch’ December,1915, it received wide publicity. Miss Moira Bell Michael, then a fulltime schoolteacher, was so impressed with the poem she wrote a further ode entitled “We Shall Keep The Faith” and additionally made the concerted decision to wear a poppy always as a symbol of this sentiment.
In November 1918 Madame Guerin attended a convention of YMCA Secretaries from the Allied Nations and met Miss Michael. Greatly impressed with Miss Michael’s idea of the Flanders poppy as a badge of remembrance she took the idea back to France from where it quickly spread amongst the Allies of WW1. In 1919 the newly formed British Legion adopted the Flanders Poppy as its official badge of remembrance followed by the Australian RSL in 1921.
Shortly afterwards in 1922 a factory for the manufacture of poppies for distribution in Britain and Northern Ireland was established in the Old Kent Road, London under the supervision of Major George Howson MC to provide employment for disabled soldiers. This was just the start. Demand increased over the years as the poppy became an internationally recognised symbol of respect to the fallen in battle. Millions of poppies were sold last year and the overall appeal raised £30m for the Royal British Legion’s charitable work.
However, despite year on year success and increase in sales , the poppy has similarly seen its own controversy since its initial recognition in the early 1920’s. Last year Britons bought 26m poppies, but others choose not to. Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow famously refuses to wear one on air, reportedly saying he does not want to bow to “poppy fascism”.
Even as far back as 1933, unrest over poppy bureaucracy was already beginning to occur. The lesser seen white poppy was created by the Women’s Co-operative Guild as a lasting symbol of peace but the Royal British Legion refused to take it on board, having received complaints from veterans claiming it undermined their contribution as well as the meaning of the red poppy. Feelings ran so high that some women lost their jobs in the 1930s for wearing white poppies.
Not to be outdone, animal rights campaigners then introduced a purple poppy for animals who died at war shortly afterwards. Although not seen widely, this symbol still remains in circulation.
During years since World War II , arguments have arisen over poppy ‘etiquette’; which side to wear it- left or right ( upon interview, a RBL spokesman stated they liked it to be worn “ over the heart, but as long as its worn with pride, that’s what really counts”).
The correct date of beginning to wear the poppy is also accounted for. Anywhere from around 2 weeks before is considered desirable protocol, although BBC newsreaders are required to wear it from 6am on 24th October onwards.
But what of modern day discontent over the poppy? Since the millennium, tabloids have seen reports on a yearly basis, relating a story of another possible poppy ban within one organisation or another.
Last year’s story was that of teenager Harriett Phipps from Stratford Upon Avon. Working for clothes shop Hollisters in Southampton, she was asked to remove the poppy from her uniform as it was ‘against company policy’. Sticking to her moral rights, Ms Phipps refused to remove the item and promptly struck up a national petition to stop poppy discrimination. She stated “ my grandfather fought for this country, now I am fighting for him”.
It would appear that within latter years, ignorance of soldiers bravery within battle have led to a silent apathy amongst younger people, adding to the occasional waves of discontent.
Robert Lee; Head of Media campaigns for the Royal British Legion the Poppy Appeal joined in 2007 and finally enjoyed a breakthrough year during 2009 , engaging a younger generation. The charity launched an online community, Legion Live, a YouTube channel that was the most viewed not-for-profit channel in Britain during the Remembrance Day commemorations.
But getting to this stage was a long process. “When you’re dealing with a mighty ship like the British Legion, it doesn’t turn around on a dime,” he said.
He’s also been able to call on the support of celebrities – although he’s careful to point out that their appeal lies not in their status but in the artistic element they lend to a campaign. Rock bands Athlete and Radiohead both released singles from which all proceeds went to the legion. Maintaining links with a younger audience will be key to the charity shifting its focus to the “Afghan generation”, Lee stated.
Last week, my two young sons and I encountered a veteran from World War II selling poppies on behalf of the RBL. The boys were fascinated as he very happily took them through a drill of correct salutes and told them in gentle terms how he had helped to combat European resistance. He was stoical and gracious. How anyone could object to the remembrance of his fallen like-minded colleagues is beyond my personal understanding.
Whatever occasional rumblings occur within elements of society, it would appear that as long as there is war and there are fatalities, the poppy will continue to represent the brave and strong.
With the new RBL shop designing an array of poppies in wonderful materials, textures and sizes, it will continue to sell well and is here to stay.
For more information visit:www.poppyshop.org.uk