Poppy seeds can lie dormant in the ground for a long time. If the ground is disturbed from the early spring the seeds will germinate and the poppy flowers will grow. This is what happened during the First World War where the ground was disturbed by the fighting. The poppy seeds lying in the ground began to germinate and grow. John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and poet, noticed how they had grown up around the burials near his artillery position,
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Inspired by the poem, an American called Moina Michael vowed always to wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance. She campaigned to have the poppy adopted in the United States as a national memorial symbol. In 1920 the American Legion, a US war veterans’ organization, adopted the memorial poppy.
A French woman by the name of Anna Guérin took the idea of the memorial poppy and made artificial poppies to raise money for French children orphaned in the war. She was determined to introduce the idea to the Allied nations and went in person to Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, founder and first president of The British Legion. She persuaded him to adopt the poppy as an emblem for The Legion. The first poppy appeal was organised in the UK in the autumn of 1921 as the Haig Fund – and for many years the words Haig Fund were inscribed in the centre of each poppy.
Field Marshal Douglas Haig has been the subject of much controversy. An ex-member of the Bullingdon Club, he was part of the Haig whiskey dynasty. His army career saw action in India, Sudan and South Africa, where, in January 1901, he commanded a column of 2,500 men who burned down Boer farms, rounding up the women and children into concentration camps.
He commanded the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 to the end of the War. American General John Pershing lauded him as “the man who won the war” but military historian B.H. Liddell Hart, who was himself wounded during World War I, wrote that Haig was, “a man of supreme egoism and utter lack of scruple – who, to his overweening ambition, sacrificed hundreds of thousands of men.” Indeed, he was nicknamed Butcher of the Somme for the two million British casualties under his command in attritional battles along the Western Front.
British soldiers described their condition with brutal humour in the song Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire – which officers tried unsuccessfully to suppress,
If you want to find the general I know where he is,
He’s pinning another medal on his chest,
If you want to find the colonel I know where he is,
He’s sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut,
If you want to find the sergeant I know where he is,
He’s drinking all the company rum,
If you want to find the private I know where he is,
He’s hanging on the old barbed wire.
After active service, Haig was prominent in campaigns supporting the welfare of ex-servicemen. He set up both the Haig Fund for the financial assistance of ex-servicemen and the Haig Homes charity to provide housing for ex-servicemen. Both continue to this day.
Although formed to support the veterans of the Great War, The British Legion recognises that, “since then, Britain has been involved in many other wars and fields of Service, creating a continuous supply of Service men and women, and their families, who need our assistance.”
The Legion fight nearly 36,000 War Disablement Pension cases for veterans and make around 300,000 welfare visits a year. They have campaigned for research into (and compensation for) Gulf War Syndrome, upgrading of War Pensions, and better support for those resettling into civilian life. Recent campaigns have included Honour the Covenant and Time To Do Your Bit.
Although The Legion criticised the government’s treatment of service personnel, it never criticised the actual decision to enter wars which has led to their death or injury. It was recognition of this that gave rise to the white poppy campaign. In 1933 The Co-Operative Women’s Guild argued that many women who had lost loved ones in the first world war wanted to remember their sacrifice in a way that was not militaristic and could not be taken to make war seem acceptable. The Peace Pledge Union joined the white poppy campaign in 1934. They argue that “90 years after the end of the ‘war to end all wars’ we still have a long way to go to put an end to a social institution, which in the last decade alone killed over 10 million children.” The white poppy campaign supports educational work drawing attention the social values, such as Britain’s economic reliance on arms sales, that make continuing violence a likely outcome.
The British Legion says that it “doesn’t have a problem whether you wear a red one or a white one, both or none at all”. But others have been less understanding. When the white poppy was first established, some women lost their jobs for wearing them. The red poppy is the ONLY symbol that the BBC allows newscasters to wear. Despite the white poppy appeal’s whole annual turnover only being equivalent to the annual salary of the British Legion’s Chief Executive, they are vilified for diverting money from the poppy appeal. In 1986 Margaret Thatcher expressed her “deep distaste” for it. Damien Thompson of The Telegraph called the white poppy campaign “despicable”.
However, veterans themselves have written to the press expressing their concern that the poppy appeal is now being hijacked to build public support for military campaigns. In a letter to The Guardian in 2010 they warned that, “A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum-roll of support for current wars. This year’s campaign has been launched with showbiz hype. The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored.”
The letter’s organiser, who served nine years in the Parachute Regiment, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, said, “We are concerned that people are trying to take ownership of the poppy for political ends… That is not what the poppy was all about to start with: it was all about remembrance and peace: never again. The government should be supporting these casualties: they are their liability, not the British Legion’s.”
Another signatory, who served in the Falkland and Northern Ireland between 1979 and 1984, said, “I don’t have a problem with the British Legion, which does wonderful work, but it is the sanitisation which concerns me. Part of me wants to be sensitive to the families who have lost loved ones and part of me wants to throw a bucket of blood into the living rooms of the nation every night to show people the true meaning of war.”
The British Legion reply that, “There is nothing in our appeal or campaigning which supports, or does not support, war: we are totally neutral. We are not a warmongering organisation. We don’t have a position on war in Iraq or anywhere else. These boys don’t send themselves to Iraq – that’s a decision for the politicians.”
It was the politician Lloyd George who, in the aftermath of the First World War, promised that his coalition government would make Britain “a fit land for heroes to live in” – but instead the troops had returned to the unemployment and homelessness. In 1945 their votes carried Labour to power to honour their promise of enacting the Beveridge Report which saw the founding of the welfare state. These days, politicians have personal photographers to parade their act of remembrance in front of the media. Meanwhile they commit our troops to illegal wars abroad while dismantling the welfare state at home. Footballers and popstars hope to hide their self-obsession and greed behind a ‘bling poppies’ bringing the ostentatious flaunting of wealth into act of remembrance. Facebook is riddled with borderline racist signs telling people to respect the poppy or “pack their bags and f**k off!”
The history of the remembrance poppy is one of an international sharing of ideas to remember the sacrifices made by service personnel and to support them and their dependents. But it also highlights the contradictions of sending millions to their deaths while honouring their memory and of pledging to build a country fit for heroes whilst not even allocating the funds to support them once they leave the services. It cannot be reduced to the jingoistic nonsense of football tribalism or the shallow symbolism of a PR corporate stunt. To do so diminishes the value of remembrance. The fitting tribute to those who die in the name of this country is to build a country worthy of them.