It’s the time of year when poppies begin to appear once again on coats and lapels around the country, everywhere from shops to soap operas and from pubs to parliaments. Nearly a century after the outbreak of the “war to end all wars”, as it was once idealistically called, people in many parts of the world unite in remembrance of the fallen, and it’s the flower which grew in Flanders fields which has come to symbolise this act.
Commemoration of the First World War has never quite seemed to slip fully into history. Given that so few years passed between its end and the rise of the Nazis, and that war has continued to blight generation after generation, Armistice Day has merged seamlessly into Remembrance Day. Without losing its WWI origins, 11th November has also served as a focus for people’s feelings about recent and current wars and military engagements.
For many people those red poppies on the coats and lapels are more than a reminder of the fallen from wars we learned of in school, but act also as a sign of continued support for those serving in the armed forces today who risk their lives around the world.
I suspect that’s why the alternative symbol, the white poppy, has never quite died out. Though every newsreader you’ll see in coming weeks will wear the red poppy, there are those of us who prefer the white one. Originally produced by the Co-Operative Women’s Guild and now by the Peace Pledge Union, the white poppy is important to me for several reasons.
Firstly it is a reminder that there are victims of war on all sides, and in civilian as well as military life, and that remembrance is for all of them. It is also a reminder that the idea of a war to end all wars was a dangerous delusion; that people cannot be beaten into peace. To me, the white poppy does not seek to detract from the remembrance of the war dead, but rather to add a note of hope; hope that one day our world might be a peaceful one.
Finally it’s important that remembrance, or the commemoration of Armistice Day, is not an unthinking and automatic routine. If it’s to be a meaningful act it must have room for debate and critical thinking. If wearing a white poppy leads to just once conversation about these issues, and about the role of violence in today’s world, then I think it’s worth doing.
I know some people are uncomfortable with my choice. I know some people find it provocative. But as the UK Government prepares to spend vast sums of money on another generation of nuclear weapons which threaten murder on an unprecedented scale, it’s important that the white poppy is still seen as a symbol of peace in a violent world.