Lucy Noakes is a social and cultural historian with specific interests in war, memory, gender and national identity. In this blog, she has written a piece about the Great Poppy War of 2016.
On Tuesday 1 November Britain woke to the news that FIFA had ruled that three of the national football teams (England, Scotland and Wales), playing international matches in early November, would not be allowed to wear armbands with red poppies on. FIFA’s ruling, based on an interpretation of the poppy of remembrance as a political symbol, caused an uproar in the public sphere: newspapers, television and radio, social media and the Houses of Parliament all dedicating time and space to discussion, and usually condemnation, of FIFA’s decision. By Thursday 3 November, according to the Daily Mail, Britain was at war – a Poppy War –which the paper claimed, with a lack of irony, it would fight against FIFA ruling.
At Prime Minister’s Questions the previous day Theresa May had described the decision as ‘utterly outrageous’. So it was perhaps unsurprising that by the 3rd November the English and Scottish Football Associations, playing on November 11, had decided that it would defy the ban: footballers from the three nations would wear a red poppy armband, and accept the penalties imposed by FIFA, most likely a deduction of points from the team’s tallies in their World Cup qualifying groups.
The row focused on whether or not the poppy is a political symbol. First sold by the newly created (Royal) British Legion in 1921, to raise money for the many wounded and disabled veterans who had returned from the First World War, the poppy had its origins in the carnage and chaos of the Western Front, where poppies, thriving in the disturbed earth around the battlefields, grew in their thousands. The Canadian military doctor, John McCrae, based close to the front line in Ypres, wrote the famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ in 1915, which opened with the lines:
In Flanders Fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row.
First sold to raise money for wounded troops in the United States, the poppy was bought to Britain by a Frenchwoman, Anna Guerin, where they were swiftly taken up as both a symbol of remembrance and a means of raising money for disabled veterans and their families. So far, it might seem, so non-political. What, after all, could be less political than a widely shared desire to help those who had returned from war and were, because of their injuries, unable to find work or to support their families? However, I want to argue in this short article that not only the red Poppy of Remembrance, but the wider traditions of commemoration that grew out of the bloodshed of the First World War, are and always have been, deeply political, if not always in intent, then in interpretation.
As any good student of cultural history will tell you, the meanings of any ‘text’ or object are not entirely embedded in its material form, but are shaped by the views, beliefs and position of its audience and consumers. This was discovered early on in the aftermath of war by the British government, when what was meant to be a victory ceremony became a ritual of remembrance. The first official remembrance of the war took place on 19 July 1919, designated as Peace Day. This was meant to be a celebration of the military victory, with the returning heroes parading through the streets of London. However, the Empire’s dead were also incorporated into this parade, represented by a temporary version of the Cenotaph made out of plaster, cloth and wood.
This was only meant to be a small part of proceedings and the focus of the day was intended as celebration of military achievement. However, this was upset by public reactions. Crowds flocked to the Cenotaph to pay respect to their dead. There were so many people that the parade had to be rerouted and for weeks after people continued to bring wreaths from around the country. What was meant to be a day of celebration was spontaneously refocused around mourning and commemoration.
While the transformation of Peace Day into Armistice Day, first held on the 11 November 1919, with its focus on commemoration of sacrifice and the war’s dead, rather than victory and the living veterans, can be seen as driven by a cultural politics, and, as Jay Winter has reminded us, the needs of the bereaved to find a means to collectively mourn the dead, the first controversy around remembrance took place in the mid 1920s.
The solemn ceremonies of remembrance that took place on the morning of Armistice Day had been followed by often riotous parties and balls, as veterans came together to both remember their colleagues and to celebrate their own survival. By 1925 however, these celebrations were frowned upon by some, seen as ‘out of step’ with the national mood of solemn remembrance, and the continued presence on the streets (despite the annual poppy appeal) of destitute, unemployed and homeless veterans. The Daily Mail led the campaign against veteran celebrations. Its Leader column for 22 October 1925 asked rhetorically ‘Armistice Day Revels. Should they be held?’, answering that ‘such festivities as have hitherto marked the celebration of Armistice Day are not in keeping with the day’s trued character’. The veteran’s desire to celebrate their survival lost out to the dominant politics of remembrance.
As the optimism of the early 1920s collapsed into economic depression, high unemployment and the lure of fascism in the late 1920s and early 1930s, local newspapers began to report on groups of unemployed veterans demonstrating on Armistice Day, wearing their dole papers in place of their medals, using the ceremonies and symbols of remembrance to draw attention to their plight. By the mid 1930s the poppy and its meanings were firmly at the centre of another political controversy. As a wave of support for pacifism swept across Europe, driven by the rise of a belligerent Nazism, intent on defying the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty, by the Italian Fascist invasion of Abyssinia, by the Japanese invasion of China and by the Spanish Civil War, all of which demonstrated that any coming war would be fought against civilians at least as much as against combatants, the White Poppy appeared as an alternative symbol of remembrance.
First created in Britain by the Women’s Co-Operative Guild in 1933 and sold to raise money for the Peace Pledge Union, the largest pacifist group of the decade, the White Poppy acted as a powerful if always controversial means of commemorating both civilian and combatant victims of war across national borders while expressing an opposition to the decade’s slide towards a second, even more devastating, conflict. Some mourners at war memorials, seeing the White Poppy as an encroachment on the existing symbol of remembrance, were reported to have stamped on the wreaths, and to have threatened White Poppy sellers on the streets.
All of this however, was nothing compared to the politics that has surrounded the poppy, and ceremonies of remembrance, since the end of the 20th century. The millennial ‘memory boom’ – the desire to look back at the bloody and violent 20th century and try to make some sense of it – was strengthened by the passing of the last military veterans of the First World War in Britain, and by the ‘War on Terror’ which saw Britain go to war again, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Young veterans, wounded in battle, once again began to appear on British streets, and the heart-broken bereaved once again gathered around war memorials. Armistice Day reclaimed its place on the British collective calendar as cultural, political and commercial institutions chose to mark the 11 November as a moment of commemoration alongside Remembrance Sunday.
Alongside this resurgence of remembrance rituals camea renewed politics of commemoration. Always contentious in the bloody politics of Northern Ireland, where the presence or absence of a poppy in early November functioned as a statement of your political allegiance, poppies became more and more visible in mainland Britain. On television, they became almost omnipresent. The Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow condemned attacks on public figures who were seen without a poppy as ‘poppy fascism’, and the ITV journalist Charlene White was abused on social media for not wearing a poppy on air, as was the actress Sienna Miller. It was not enough, apparently, to support the charity by giving money; your support had to be visible.
What, exactly, is going on here? I don’t think that anyone has ever claimed that the dead of the battlefields died so that we should all wear poppies, yet those who choose not to do so, or who choose to wear a white poppy, or a purple poppy in remembrance of the animals used, and killed in warfare, stand accused of both a lack of reverence for the dead, and – often implicitly – a lack of patriotism.
Britishness, or at least one form of it, has become entangled with the poppy in a way that was never the intent in the aftermath of war. Much of the reaction to the FIFA poppy ban conflated it with a form of Britishness, newspaper columnists and Twitter users queuing up to tell FIFA that it was not a political symbol whilst, at one and the same time, making it exactly that. Tweets from users with names such as ‘UKIP Poole’, Ex EU Serf’ and ‘Leave.EU’ claimed the poppy for a particular form of Britishness, opposed not only to ‘FIFA scum’ but to both Europe and the left.
This emergent and worrying linkage of the poppy with a particular strand of populist politics has, paradoxically, managed to place the poppy – created as a symbol of remembrance for all British combatants, of all and any political persuasion – at the heart of a deeply felt divide in contemporary British society.
The poppy, as a symbol of war remembrance, has always been politicized, even though this was not the original intent; what is new is the venom with which those who choose not to wear one are attacked. If the poppy is to survive as a widely shared symbol of remembrance, perhaps we need to remember that its power as a symbol of remembrance, like respect, only works if it is voluntary.