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Both kinds of poppy red or white should be about the respect each of us feels for those who paid the greatest price in the futility of war, not for glorifying war and militarism, argues PETER FROST

During WWI 10 million soldiers were killed. As the men — and the brave women who nursed them at the front — slowly returned home from war, many had shell-shock or what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. They all had stories to tell.

Those who had seen such horrors in the blood and mud of the trenches in Belgium and northern France also would tell a much brighter story of the extraordinary beauty, persistence and profusion of the fragile but defiant flower — the blood-red corn poppy.

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Strangely it was returning North American soldiers who first adopted the red poppy as an emblem. The Canadian doctor John McCrae had captured the beauty, symbolism and pathos of the poppy in a poem: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row.”

US organisations first arranged for artificial poppies to be made by women in war-torn France. The money raised went to children who had been orphaned by the war. British soldiers too came back from the grimness of war to find that life wasn’t “fit for heroes” as they had been promised.

Just like today, returning heroes found the government offhand and tardy dealing with their problems. As so often Rudyard Kipling summed it up in a couple of lines: “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

Kipling’s lines have taken on a new amazingly contemporary relevance as Tony Blair is forced to tell the truth about his war crimes.

Some of the returning WWI soldiers organised themselves into ex-servicemen’s societies of various political opinions and of varying degrees of militancy.

In 1921 many of these organisations united to form the British Legion. Its noble purpose was to provide support and to fight for the rights of ex-servicemen, especially the disabled and their families.

In fact what actually happened was it became run by the officer class, “the donkeys that had led the lions in the trenches.”

They paid themselves good salaries as the charity became one of the richest in British.

The Legion bought 1.5 million of those French-made artificial poppies and sold them to the British public, raising over £10,000. Poppy day had been invented.

Soon the British Legion set up its own poppy factory, with disabled exservicemen making the poppies and today they produce and sell over 45 million lapel poppies, 120,000 wreaths and one million small wooden remembrance crosses.

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It also adopted as its slogan: “Honour the dead, care for the living.” Today David Cameron and his fellow Tories may wear the poppy but claims for benefits for recently serving military personnel are taking longer and longer and becoming harder and harder as a result of their spending cuts.

One in 10 of Britain’s homeless rough sleepers is an ex-soldier. Not everyone is happy to wear the red poppy. Some see them as glorifying war and militaristic thinking. In many people’s eyes they have become a badge of jingoism and a justification of recent wars.

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In some quarters the poppy has become a more blatant political label. In Northern Ireland it became a Protestant loyalist symbol because of its connection with British imperialism.

In 1926 the No More War Movement suggested that the British Legion should be asked to put “No More War” in the centre of the red poppies instead of “Haig Fund.”

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Haig was “Butcher Haig” — the British general who had ordered so many of his troops to their death at the Battle of the Somme — one of the worst bloodbaths in British military history. When it came to “lions led by donkeys,” Haig was certainly our biggest donkey.

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Two million brave lions died under his orders.

The officer class running the British Legion choose to keep Haig’s name on their poppies until 1994.

In 1933 the first white poppies appeared on Armistice Day, mostly home-made and worn mainly by members of the Co-operative Women’s Guild.

Just a year later the Peace Pledge Union was formed and it began widespread distribution of white peace poppies in November each year.

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Just as today, it took real courage and real commitment to wear the white peace poppy.

So which will you wear?

My wife Ann always wears a red poppy. The flower has a strong personal family connection. She wears it in proud memory of her dad Fred who always wore his red poppy in memory of his own father, another Fred, Ann’s grandfather.

Grandfather Fred died in France in 1917 — he had been in France just days and his body was never found. He left a widow and four children including young Fred then aged just six.

Fred hated war as much as anybody but his red poppy was the only memorial to his dad he ever had.

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No wonder he wore it with pride and encouraged his young daughter to wear it too. So wear your poppy, red or white or both with pride.

Don’t let anyone hijack the red poppy as a symbol glorifying war and militarism.

Both poppies red and white are about the respect each of us feels for those who paid the greatest price in the futility of war. Sadly young soldiers are still dying today.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 30 October 2015

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