Lest We Forget - Why wearing a poppy should never cause offence

By Emma Tofi

This sunday people will stop for two minutes at precisely eleven o'clock. They will stop where they stand - in shops, in busy streets, or simply in their own homes. These people will be of all ages. These people may come from very different backgrounds. Yet they will all stop and be silent as one, for the same reason: Respect and remembrance to those who gave their lives in war. Many of those people will be wearing a symbol of that remembrance, pinned onto their coats, or tucked into the band of a hat worn to keep out the November chill. A small, vivid red reminder of the sacrifices given so that we may live freely. A poppy.

Yet every year, there is a small, but worryingly noisy chorus of people who feel that simple, red symbol, is somehow offensive. That we shouldn't wear a poppy. That to do so - and I find this possibly the most laughable thing I've ever heard in my life - is to "glorify war."

So I'm writing this not only to explain why I find that view not only wrong but deeply offensive, but also to try to give something of a background to the Poppy Appeal. For a part of me can't help but wonder whether the cries of "wearing that shows you're pro-war!" are borne out of ignorance of what the symbol truly means.

One of the earliest mentions of a poppy in the context of war, comes from a poem called "In Flanders' Fields," written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrea. McCrea was a Medical Officer from the 1st Canadian Contingent, who was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres. Far from "glorifying war," McCrea was devastated by the loss of life all around him during the bloody, seventeen day battle. He wrote his now famous poem, following the death of one of his friends. The opening lines speak of the red poppy being the first flower to grow out of the earth beneath which the dead lay, bringing with it hope and new life. The final lines read:

"Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To You, from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
And if ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow,
In Flanders' Fields."

McCrea's words were seen as a cry to men everywhere - do not let those killed in battle die in vain. Continue to fight until the war is won. This is where some poppy-opposers will immediately attempt to point-score by saying: "See! It's a poem about wanting people to go to war!" But ask yourself this question: If you have never lived through a battle, the likes of which were fought during WWI, can you really claim to understand the emotions of those who were there? Many of those young men had been conscripted to fight. We're not talking about lads who just fancied a bit of a scuffle, here. We're talking about many who were barely out of boyhood and were thrown into the most frightening situation they had ever experienced. They knew they could die and they didn't want to have lost their lives for nothing. They wanted to ensure the war was won and freedom prevailed.


McCrea's poem was published in Punch magazine and received much critical acclaim. Three years later, shortly after McCrae's death, a Miss Moina Bell Michael, secretary of the American YMCA, wrote a response to the poem in which she likened the red of the poppies in the field to the blood of men killed in battle. She noted:

"...Blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders' fields."

Miss Michael was so deeply affected by McCrae's words and by the idea of something so beautiful - the poppy - growing peacefully on the site of such horrors, that she resolved to wear a poppy in remembrance of the war dead. Note: Not to glorify battle. Not to revel in the blood of men lost. But as a symbol of remembrance. In her own words, Moina Bell Michael wanted to wear a poppy to "keep the faith with all who died."



Moina Bell Michael began selling silk poppies to raise money for the ex service community in November 1918. In 1920, the red poppy was, thanks to Miss Michael's tireless campaigning, unveiled at a conference as the official symbol of the National American Legion. Madame Anna Guerin, secretary of the French YMCA, was in attendance and was deeply impressed with the poppy being used in such a manner. When Madame Guerin returned to France, she put forward Miss Michael's idea of the poppy being used for remembrance of those lost in war. The idea was quickly adopted not only in France, but by other Allied nations. Madame Guerin also furthered the idea that the sale of poppies could help those devastated by WWI. The proceeds from the sale of the artificial flowers went towards helping restoration projects, as well as providing food and shelter for children orphaned by the war. In 1921, Madame Guerin introduced the symbol to the British Legion and the UK's first ever "Poppy Appeal" was held to coincide with Armistice Day.



The poppies for that very first appeal all came from France. However, in 1922, a UK-based factory was opened, to produce poppies for future appeals and to provide employment for disabled former soldiers. To this day, the workforce employed to make the poppies we wear for Remembrance Day is largely comprised of disabled former British military personnel and the money raised from the annual Poppy Appeal is spent on a variety of good causes. Here are just a few:
  • Personnel Recovery Centres, which help wounded or sick service personnel to recover and either return to service, or adjust to civilian life.
  • Care homes for ex service personnel and their families.
  • Break services for current military personnel as well as ex servicemen/women and their families, providing an opportunity to get away from the stress of military life and spend quality time together.
  • Providing emotional support to service personnel as well as ex military personnel and their families.
  • Offering legal assistance, financial support and advice on benefits etc for current and ex service personnel and their beneficiaries.
  • So the origin of the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance comes from the peaceful sight of the vivid red flowers growing in and around the battlefields during World War One and the reminder that they brought new life in a place of death. The symbol itself represents remembrance of those who gave their lives not only in that war, but in every one since. And the money raised by people offering donations in return for these symbols, goes towards genuinely helping those injured in current wars, those still suffering the after-affects of past wars and those who are left behind when their loved ones are killed. What on Earth is offensive about any of that?

    Many who oppose the wearing of a poppy will tell you that they do so because they are vehemently anti-war. Ask yourself a question: Do you personally know anyone who is actively pro-war?! I certainly don't! I don't wear my poppy in November because gosh darn it, I just love a good war. Dictators and violent lunatics aside, I can't think of anyone who could describe themselves as "pro-war," thus making the statement "anti-war" in itself, rather ludicrous. Aren't we all anti war, deep down? Wouldn't we all rather there was never a need for bloodshed, or for innocent lives to be lost? The trouble is, to suggest that some day war will just end and all conflicts will be solved with a bit of a chit-chat is painfully naive, however nice a dream it may be. You may call me negative for saying that, but I'm really not. I would love to live in a world in which there is no more war. I just recognise that it's highly unlikely ever to happen. Saying that doesn't mean that I'm pro-war. It means I acknowledge the sad fact that conflict can and does happen.

    Another argument against wearing a poppy is that to do so suggests that you view the military as heroes and those who are pacifists (because as I said, I don't believe in the phrase "anti-war") refuse to acknowledge them as such. Taking away the extreme potential offensiveness of that statement (and speaking as a member of a family with a long and proud military history, that's not exactly easy), ask yourself how wearing a poppy suggests you view everyone in the military as a hero. The poppy, as we've discovered, is simply a symbol of remembrance. Wearing it makes ONE statement and it's not "I love war" and it's not even "every person in the military is a hero." It's "WE WILL REMEMBER THEM."
    That said, those who gave their lives in the two World Wars were heroes. I will argue this point until there is no breath left in my body. Without the sacrifices they made, you - yes YOU reading this right now - might not be here to read this or anything else. The freedom the vast majority of us have (and take for granted) to do as we please, love whoever we want and believe in whatever we choose, would more than likely not exist. It would be an entirely different world and whatever we may think of our current government, or the current social climate, I certainly know which world I'd rather live in.

    Those currently serving are performing incredibly brave - indeed, heroic - actions every day. They're entering situations which you or I wouldn't dream of going anywhere near. They're still risking - and all too often, giving - their lives in the eventual pursuit of PEACE and freedom. It's not about mindless slaughter, or violence without meaning. Anyone who knows about the science of war will tell you how much careful planning goes into every military manoeuvre. Can you put your hand on your heart and say you'd happily walk into a situation where you could be seriously wounded or killed? That's what our Armed Forces are doing out there in places like Afghanistan. On a daily basis.

    This is where pacifists will argue that a person who kills another can never be a hero. And this is where I argue - what if nobody had fought back during either of the World Wars? What if everyone had all sat back and announced: "I'm sorry, we can't fight against you; you'll have to just do whatever you want..." then even fewer of us would be alive now. Mainly because so many of our ancestors would have been killed for their religious or political beliefs, if not for their sexual orientation. Those who fought in those two wars, did so not because they wanted to kill (the infamous Christmas Day football match between the British and German troops during WWI shows that all the soldiers knew they were at heart, just people caught in an impossibly awful situation), but because they felt a duty to protect their country and the liberties they had. I may not be around today if those people hadn't gone to fight. I now live in a free country in which people of all sexualities, all religions and cultural backgrounds have rights. Those soldiers helped to achieve that and they are heroes for that. Our men and women out in Afghanistan and similar war-torn areas are fighting to provide those same freedoms for others. That makes them heroes, too.
    Modern battles are often cited as reasons for poppy-opposition. But in truth, whether or not you agreed with the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan is irrelevant when it comes to the subject of the poppy. There is - and I'm getting bored of having to write this, so Heaven knows what those reading it are thinking - NO connection between wearing a poppy and being "pro-war." There is no place for politics when it comes to remembering our war dead. It's not about saying "yes, I agree with the war in Afghanistan," or "I'm so pleased World War 1 happened," it's about saying "people have died and I wish to pay my respects."

    When you attend a funeral, you wear black. Are you "glorifying" death?!

    When you wear a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness, are you somehow "glorifying" cancer?!

    Of course not. You're paying respect and taking part in remembrance or the hope for a cure. Why is it that wearing a symbol of respect and remembrance for our service personnel who've given their lives is seen as being so different?

    There are three colours of poppy, nowadays. The red one, with a long history and a peaceful, respectful beginning which has been taken by some and twisted into something it is not. Then there is a white poppy, used by pacifists. I must admit to taking some offence at that. There is no need for a poppy supposedly representing peace, when the red poppy already had roots in a hope for peace! The money from white poppies does not go towards any of the great projects The British Legion is responsible for, which help our ex service personnel, as well as those still serving. The sentiments of the white poppy are already encompassed by the red and many veterans feel that a white poppy seems to undermine what they went through and what their comrades died for.

    The third is a purple poppy, representing the animals lost in war. Again, I believe the red poppy can easily encompass that, although as an animal lover, I do understand the desire to ensure animals aren't forgotten in war.
    I would never tell another person what they can and can't believe and my writing this is not an attempt to force those who don't wear poppies to do so, however much I may privately wish them to. But to be told, by angry voices, that my poppy is offensive is genuinely disrespectful. It comes from ignorance of the poppy's history, a total disregard for the horrors suffered by those who gave their lives so that we could live in freedom today and a lack of understanding of how deeply, deeply offensive their protestations are to those left behind.

    When I put my poppy onto my coat, I do so out of respect for those serving in wars today, those killed in active service throughout the years and with the hope that peace will ensue someday, however vain a wish I know that may be. I wear my poppy to show the immense pride I have in our Armed Forces, who protect this country, keep us secure and put their lives on the line so that I don't have to. I have my poppy on because I want to remember all lives lost in war, whether service personnel or civilian, human or animal. I wear it proudly, because I know that it doesn't make me pro-war or anything ludicrous like that. It doesn't mean I enjoy violence or I'm proud that there are battles raging in the world right now.

    Every life lost in conflict is a tragedy. But it would be a greater tragedy if we were to listen to the voices of those suggesting that to wear a symbol of remembrance is somehow wrong. So I urge you: Wear your poppy with pride and remember all the peaceful, sincere reasons why it's there.

    "At the going down of the sun and in the morning...
    WE WILL REMEMBER THEM."

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