Poppy wars: the battle over remembrance

Poppy Appeal?

As Armistice Day approaches, the question of how we should remember the First World War has again hit the news.

Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow, does not wear a poppy when he reads the news. Many presenters on television choose to at this time of year, but he does not. This has led to controversy in recent days, summed up in this BBC report, ‘TV’s Snow rejects ‘poppy fascism’‘.

You’ll remember that the poppy is worn as a symbol of remembrance for the deaths of soldiers during war. The blood-red flower has been associated with death in war at least since Waterloo: it flourishes in turned over ground, such as fields churned up by horses and artillery, or, a century later on the Western Front, folded and cratered by massive shell explosions. Fed by lime and human fertiliser, the poppy famously began to cover Flander’s fields.

John McRae’s famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, led to a wider identification of the poppy with the butchery of the First World War, especially in his homeland Canada. The poem begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…

By twists and turns, but directly inspired by the poem, the Royal Canadian Legion eventually began giving paper poppies as symbols of remembrance for the dead of the First World War. This custom spread worldwide, and hence the poppy is still worn today.

The question at the heart of the controversy is whether and why a poppy should be worn today. Snow isn’t against the wearing of poppies; he says he doesn’t wear any kind of symbol. Some people are angry that he seems to have rejected the poppy: in doing so, they say, he is rejecting the dead that the poppy represents. Tempers are high. What do you think about this issue? Some people say the whole thing has been whipped up by the media. Does it matter that Snow won’t wear a poppy on the news? The Daily Mail weighs in, here: a historian defends Snow, here.

Meanwhile there seems to be a more bothersome problem with remembering the First World War on television. Where are the stories and accounts of WWI on the mainstream terrestrial stations? A week before the anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the BBC hasn’t shown a single new documentary on the conflict. Less emotive perhaps, but more important for the nation’s remembrance than the fact that a telly newsreader isn’t wearing a flower? Perhaps.

At any rate, in a nice irony, Channel 4 has repeated a fascinating documentary on the First World War, ‘Not Forgotten’. Presented by Ian Hislop, it looks at the history of the reviled ‘conchies’, or conscientious objectors to the war. These were people who objected totally to the fighting, and decided to take no part in it, for personal or religious reasons. They suffered social isolation– and worse. You can watch the episode on the web at Channel 4 online.


14 thoughts on “Poppy wars: the battle over remembrance”

  1. Well, you asked me in the lesson yesterday what I thought about Jon Snow and his poppy, and I said I wasn’t going to tell you, because I didn’t want to influence you either way.

    I have got an opinion about the way that wearing poppies seems to have changed for some in recent years, though, and I might as well tell you about that (with a bit of help from a great novelist, Kurt Vonnegut).

    Have a look this article in the Guardian yesterday about concerns among some veterans that the poppy appeal has been ‘hijacked’ to political ends.

    It’s something I’ll admit I’ve been worried about over the last two or three years. I think that Armistice Day is becoming a way to celebrate the (very real) sacrifices of soldiers fighting for Britain abroad. Now, some will say that’s absolutely as it should be. Some will say that’s not happening at all.

    Personally, I think that if we want an American-style patriotic Veterans Day in this country (a day for the celebration of soldiers, and remembrance of the dead), we need to be clear about it and have it on some other day than Armistice Day. Armistice Day for me is about remembrance of the dead of two wars without parallel in the history of mankind. I feel uncomfortable wearing the poppy when it becomes a patriotic symbol of support for the army– which is how I worry it is being marketed today.

    I agree with Kurt Vonnegut. This is what he wrote in his brilliant, unconventional novel, Breakfast of Champions. Once, Veterans Day was called Armistice Day in the US. He wrote that he hated the way the name was changed:

    “November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

    “It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one and another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

    “Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ day is not.

    “So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.”

    I’m not religious, but I can’t argue with that.

  2. I think that the poppy is slowly losing its symbolic eminence in this country. It used to symbolize remembrance after death but is used now for mainly political agendas where polticians use the poppy to their advantage. I agree with Mr. Griffiths on making another individual day for soldiers but I think Armistice Day should counsel against war on this scale (World Wars I and II).

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  4. Armistice day(also known as Rememberance day) is a day where people, who have respect for the soldiers that died in the two great war, pay thier respect through silince.

    Veteran’s day is day where the Americans honour thier soldiers wether they are dead or living.

    Yes, there is a correlation between the two different days, however they are Very Different. Americans do parades, and in differents part of the world they wear a poppy in respect and also have a minute silence.

    Do we all not have Liberal rights to do or wear what we want? Yes, and that is the reason why we, as liberal citizens, do not need to wear the poppy unless we want to pay respect.

    I dont think people understand the concept of the reason why we wear poppies; I also know that people don’t agree with the war and thats why they don’t wear poppies but that’s not the point. We wear poppies because the soldiers died for us; I mean can you imagine if all the soldiers died and the Germans won?

    I think this country need to establish, in a subtle way, what Armistice day is all about.

  5. I don’t know what to say about this really. However, I think that the media shouldn’t make a huge issue of this if prominent politicians don’t wear it. No-one should be forced to believe in something. And I think the fact that Jon Snow is arguing and not just doing what others want to see makes him a very strong person.

  6. I find much to think on in all three of these posts, to be honest. My thoughts on what wearing the poppy means today are far from set– and I think the symbol of the poppy can stretch to many different meanings for whoever wears it, and for me that’s a good thing.

  7. I think this is a free world and Britain is a free country.
    Poppies are worn by people who value the poppy, who value the sacrifices made in war. Those people who don’t value it shouldn’t wear it and they mustn’t feel forced to wear it. But those people who don’t believe in what the poppy symbolises, yet still wear it- whether they may be politicians or any other form of famous figure in the media- are offending against the importance that the poppy holds around the globe.
    So my point is, that people should do things as they like and show their real face rather than be hypocritical and use symbols such as the poppy for their reputation or their advantage.

  8. I agree with Abdul. Slowly as time is passing by, less people are able to sympathise towards the soldiers of the First World War and the War itself. This may be due to the generation gap and the new generation not being able to fully understand the meaning behind the War. I think Armistice Day has a greater meaning than just the silence which most people associate with nowdays. They should be able to empathise with the soldiers and remember the great sacrifices they had made towards the well being of this country.

    About the TV Presenter Jon Snow: just because he is a TV presenter does not mean he should be forced to wear a poppy. It is simply up to him whether he wishes to do so or not. Yes, I do understand why many people may be disappointed in him as he is on national TV and should be accompanying the country as a whole in remembering the sacrifices of War. Yet again, it is better than some people who may wear a poppy, but never have any knowledge or understanding of the War …

  9. Poppies have long been used as a symbol of both sleep and death: sleep because of the opium extracted from them, and death because of their (commonly) blood-red colour. I admire Jon Snow’s courage and principles.

    He says about wearing the poppy: “Well I do, in my private life, but I am not going to wear it or any other symbol on air”.

    In the times we live in, when so many things are imposed on us by the media, I think Snow’s attitude is admirable. Moreover I think if each and every person was wearing a poppy the symbol may just lose its meaning. Like Akansha I also believe that some people now wear poppies without a full awareness of their meaning.

  10. To Akansha: It is not about having knowledge of the war or understanding the details. It is about one human being sympathising with those who lost their lives in the war, regardless to how they lost their life. It is the humanity within the fact that those people gave their lives for this country…
    And so one should have the decency to remember the soldiers not only back then, but now who risk their lives to go to fight in Afghanistan willingly.

  11. I think today’s generation do not fully understand what the soldiers of World War One went through and experienced. I dont think Armistice Day should be the only day to remember the soldiers that died for our country- they should be remembered every day for the their great bravery. I don’t feel England is a very united country anymore: well, not as united as say 100 years ago, so I believe that the poppy doesn’t just matter on behalf of those that are dead but also those that are alive. England is the place it is today because of the Great War. I agree with Jon Snow. He shouldn’t have to wear a poppy if he doesnt want to, but I think he went about the situation in the wrong way.

  12. Jarry:
    Yes you do have a valid point. I am not saying one should have full knowlede of the war, i suppose no one actually knows everything. However i think that a person cannot fully sympathise until knowing the reason for their death or the horrific nature of war they have experienced. Slowly as time is paasing, people are forgetting the sacrifices these brave soldiers had made just to provide security for their country. Not just England, but soldiers fighting all across the world. I think that before wearing a poppy, they should think about what the poppy means and the history behind it 🙂

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