The ceremonies surrounding Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday have been laid to rest for another year but reverberations linger on in letters and articles in the media. Apparently this year was a record year for the sale of red poppies. It may also be a record year for the number of people questioning the way this country remembers its war dead. Many would say that there has been a shift of emphasis from remembrance of the dead to an emphasis on support of the UK’s armed services – and the iconic red poppy has been compromised by this.
In the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday, a poll commissioned by the Ekklesia Think Tank produced some remarkable results. The poll findings contradict the jingoistic approach taken by Britain’s politicians and the tabloid press. Instead of concentrating on the “glorious” aspect of the soldiers who gave their lives fighting for our freedom and promulgating the belief that war was noble and justified, the majority of people questioned preferred to remember and mourn the totality of war with all its horrors, violence, agony and brutality. In fact, 95 percent of those surveyed said that the main message of Remembrance Sunday should be one of peace and 87 percent agreed that Remembrance Sunday should be about marking the dead on all sides of war and not just the British. An amazing 93 percent also felt that civilians who died in war should be remembered.
Ekklesia’s co-director, Jonathan Bartley, explained: “When Archbishop Robert Runcie remembered the Argentinian dead in a service in St Paul’s Cathedral after the Falklands conflict, he caused a political storm. Now it appears that the overwhelming majority feel that deaths on all sides in war should be remembered.”
Ekklesia says that the time has come for us to update our remembrance traditions and to acknowledge that we cheapen remembrance if we do not recognise the full tragedy of war for everyone – soldiers, civilians, environment and animals – and make an active commitment to peace. This signals a change from the militaristic remembrances of which this year was a good example.
In the years immediately after the First World War, “Victory Balls” were held on the 11th November to celebrate the successful outcome of the war. These occasions, which commemorated the war with dancing, music and food, attracted much criticism from those who saw militaristic values in such remembrance, rather than a commitment to peace without violence. In 1925, a great victory ball was planned to take place on Armistice Day in the Royal Albert Hall, but it was cancelled and replaced by a service of remembrance instead. The service was arranged by Canon Dick Sheppard, who was later involved in the founding of the Peace Pledge Union. In 1921 the red poppy became the national symbol of remembrance in Britain.
The Peace Pledge Union is the source of the white poppy. White poppies first made their appearance in 1933 when members of the Women’s Co-operative Guild – many of them mothers, sisters, widows and sweethearts of men killed in the First World War – anxiously noted the growing domestic and international tensions. They saw that the so-called ‘war to end all wars’, in which their men fought and died, could be followed by an even worse war. The white poppy was born from their concern and its aim was to spark debate and rally support for resistance to war. Over 300 wars later, the white poppy is still a painful reminder of the world’s failure to prevent war.
The white poppy has not enjoyed a good press. During the 1930s, many women who wore white poppies lost their jobs. In 1986, Margaret Thatcher condemned white poppies in response to an MP’s question. Nevertheless, this year several voices have been raised to suggest that people should be given the choice of wearing a white or red poppy – or both. The white poppy, with the word ‘peace’ at its centre was not designed to be in competition with the Red Poppy. In 1926, members of the No More War Movement suggested that red poppies should have “no more war” inscribed in their centre. The idea was rejected by the British Legion. When a few years later, the Women’s Co-operative Guild created the white poppy, it emphasised their hope for peace, as well as commemorating those who had died in war.
Since their inception, white poppies have caused a mixture of irritation, annoyance and anger amongst those who have interpreted them as a sign of disrespect. However, a crucial difference remains between the red and white poppy. In their refusal to state “no more war” or “peace” red poppies leave space to acknowledge the necessity of war, which white poppies challenge. It would not be right to suggest that red poppies glorify war but combined with the semi-religious language used in remembrance ceremonies, they do suggest the idea that redemption through war is possible. It cannot be denied that the red poppy has taken on both a political and religious meaning. The language of remembrance is full of religious ideology upholding the spiritual justification for war – as in phrases like “the glorious dead” and “they died for God, King and Country”. In some circles there is an obligation amounting almost to political correctness, to wear a red poppy and thereby to imply support for the armed forces whatever they are doing.
This is dangerous in an era of continuing resource wars with new and more sophisticated weapons (eg ‘drones’) threatening to kill more civilians. What is needed in future is a more inclusive remembrance covering opposing sides in a conflict, all the civilians killed and the devastation to the environment through chemical weapons.
The horrors of war should be remembered above all. If, as seems very likely at present with the Middle East – and possibly even Europe – about to go up in flames, then maybe we will not have time to remember the sadness of past wars. We may be too busy coping with present ones. Doesn’t that suggest that, however much red poppies have helped damaged service people, they have not helped to prevent war. Something wrong somewhere.
With acknowledgement to Ekklesia’s report:” Re-imagining Remembrance”(http:// www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/re-imagining_remembrance