Why we should remember when the paper poppy became a symbol of remembrance
More than 100 years ago, in 1921, paper poppies were first sold to raise money for returned soldiers of the First World War. Fiona Reid explores the history behind this symbol of remembrance...
More than a century ago, in 1921, paper poppies were first sold to raise money for returned soldiers of the First World War. In postwar society, many veterans struggled to find homes, employment and financial security, so associations were formed to campaign for their rights. Sometimes, these efforts turned violent, causing great anxiety in a British political establishment still reeling from the Russian Revolution and postwar political radicalism across Europe.
Yet when a number of ex-servicemen’s groups combined to form the British Legion, with Field Marshal Earl Haig as its president, veterans’ associations started to become more widely popular and part of the establishment rather than a force for opposition. As part of this process, the British Legion introduced the idea of selling paper poppies as a fundraising campaign to alleviate the material distress that lay at the root of veteran discontent and political agitation.
In its first year, the Legion sold 9 million poppies, entrenching the deeply felt symbolism attached to the poppy since the 1915 publication of the poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae.
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Throughout the 1920s, most British people chose to wear poppies every 11 November, but attempts to unify the nation in a shared memory were never completely successful. In 1933, the Co-operative Women’s Guild introduced the pacifist white poppy to counter the supposed militarism inherent in the so-called Flanders poppy, inspired by the poppies that grew on the battlefields. Many veterans reacted angrily and sometimes destroyed the white poppy wreaths left at war memorials.
Wearing the poppy has always been political, highlighting divisions as well as shared myths
Commemorative events were scaled back during the Second World War, and poppy-wearing remained limited until the 1990s when the British Legion campaigned successfully to reintroduce the two-minute silence. Since then, poppy-wearing has become widespread not just on Armistice Day but in the weeks leading up to 11 November. It is now unimaginable for a public figure or a BBC journalist to appear without wearing a poppy in early November.
Wearing the poppy is no neutral act. It has always been political and highly symbolic; it has always been contested and has served to highlight national divisions as well as shared myths and memories. Does wearing the poppy glorify war, or does it remind us of its tragedies? There are many responses to that question, but after 100 years, wearing the poppy reminds us that the after-effects of war endure and that we still have no answer to the question posed by the Scottish poet Tom Scott: “Why are men always making war rather than the things they need?”
Dr Fiona Reid is the associate dean at Newman University in Birmingham, and author of Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914-30 (Continuum, 2010)
This article was first published in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
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