The remembrance poppy (a Papaver rhoeas) has been used since 1921 to commemorate military personnel who have died in war. Inspired by the World War I poem "In Flanders Fields", and promoted by Moina Michael, they were first adopted by the American Legion to commemorate American soldiers killed in that war (1914–1918). They were then adopted by military veterans' groups in parts of the former British Empire: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Today, they are most common in the UK and Canada, and are used to commemorate their servicemen and women killed in all conflicts since 1914. There, small artificial poppies are often worn on clothing leading up to Remembrance Day/Armistice Day (11 November). Poppy wreaths are also often laid at war memorials.
The remembrance poppy is especially prominent in the UK. In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, they are distributed by The Royal British Legion in return for donations to their "Poppy Appeal", which supports all current and former British military personnel. During this time, all public figures and people appearing on television are expected to wear them, and those who do not have been criticized. Some have berated this as "poppy fascism" and argued that the Appeal is being used to justify and glorify current wars. In Northern Ireland the poppy is especially controversial and politicized; most Irish nationalists and Irish Catholics refuse to wear one, mainly due to actions of the British Army during the Troubles, while Ulster Protestants and Unionists usually wear them.
The use of the poppy was inspired by the World War I poem "In Flanders Fields". Its opening lines refer to the many poppies that were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up earth of soldiers' graves in Flanders, a region of Europe that overlies a part of Belgium. It is written from the point of view of the dead soldiers and, in the last verse, they call on the living to continue the conflict. The poem was written by Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, on 3 May 1915 after witnessing the death of his friend, a fellow soldier, the day before. The poem was first published on 8 December 1915 in the London-based magazine Punch.
In 1918, Moina Michael, who had taken leave from her professorship at the University of Georgia to be a volunteer worker for the American YWCA, was inspired by the poem and published a poem of her own called "We Shall Keep the Faith". In tribute to McCrae's poem, she vowed to always wear a red remembrance poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who fought and helped in the war. At a November 1918 YWCA Overseas War Secretaries' conference, she appeared with a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed 25 more to those attending. She then campaigned to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol of remembrance. At a conference in 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance. At this conference, French-woman Anna E. Guérin was inspired to introduce the artificial poppies commonly used today. In 1921 she sent her poppy sellers to London, where they were adopted by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, a founder of the Royal British Legion. It was also adopted by veterans' groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. James Fox notes that all of the countries who adopted the remembrance poppy were the "victors" of World War I.
Commonwealth of Nations
In Canada, the poppy is the official symbol of remembrance worn during the two weeks before 11 November, having been adopted in 1921. The Royal Canadian Legion, which has trademarked the image, suggests that poppies be worn on the left lapel, or as near the heart as possible.
Until 1996, poppies were made by disabled veterans in Canada, but they have since been made by a private contractor. The Canadian poppies consist of two pieces of moulded plastic covered with flocking with a pin to fasten them to clothing. At first the poppies were made with a black centre. From 1980 to 2002, the centres were changed to green. Current designs are black only; this change caused confusion and controversy to those unfamiliar with the original design. In 2007, sticker versions of the poppy were made for children, the elderly, and healthcare and food industry workers. Canada also issues a cast metal "Canada Remembers" pin featuring a gold maple leaf and two poppies, one representing the fallen and the other representing those who remained on the home front.
Following the installation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa in 2000, where the national Remembrance service is held, a new tradition formed spontaneously as attendees laid their poppies on the tomb at the end of the service. This tradition, while not part of the official program, has become widely practised elsewhere in the country, with others leaving cut flowers, photographs, or letters to the deceased.
In Australia, remembrance poppies have been used since 1921 to commemorate Australian soldiers who died in war. On Remembrance Day (11 November) and Anzac Day (25 April) they are laid at war memorials, and are sold by the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) in return for donations.
In New Zealand, remembrance poppies are most often worn on Anzac Day (25 April) to commemorate New Zealander soldiers who died in war. They are also worn on Remembrance Day, and are sold by the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association (RSA) in return for donations. The RSA planned to hold its first Poppy Day appeal around the time of Armistice Day 1921, as other countries were doing. However, the ship carrying the poppies from France arrived in New Zealand too late, and so the association waited until Anzac Day 1922. This first Poppy Day appeal was a success. Most of the money raised went to needy soldiers and their families, while the rest went to the French Children's League to help relieve suffering in war-ravaged areas of northern France.
The popularity of Poppy Day grew and there were record collections during the Second World War. By 1945, 750,000 poppies were being distributed nationwide, which equates to half the population.
In the United Kingdom, remembrance poppies are sold by The Royal British Legion (RBL). This is a charity providing financial, social, political and emotional support to those who have served or who are currently serving in the British Armed Forces, and their dependants. They are sold on the streets by volunteers in the weeks before Remembrance Day. The remembrance poppy is the trademark of The Royal British Legion. The RBL state, "The red poppy is our registered mark and its only lawful use is to raise funds for the Poppy Appeal"; its yearly fundraising drive in the weeks before Remembrance Day. The RBL says these poppies are "worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today". Other poppy merchandise is sold throughout the year as part of the ongoing fundraising.
In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the poppies have two red paper petals, a green paper leaf and are mounted on a green plastic stem. In Scotland, the poppies are curled and have four petals with no leaf. The yearly selling of poppies is a major source of income for the RBL in the UK. The poppy has no fixed price; it is sold for a donation or the price may be suggested by the seller. The black plastic center of the poppy was marked "Haig Fund" until 1994 but is now marked "Poppy Appeal". A team of about 50 people—most of them disabled former British military personnel—work all year round to make millions of poppies at the Poppy Factory in Richmond. Scottish poppies are made in the Lady Haig's Poppy Factory in Edinburgh.
For many years after World War I, poppies were worn only on Remembrance Day itself. However, today the RBL's "Poppy Appeal" has a higher profile than any other charity appeal in the UK. The poppies are widespread from late October until mid-November every year and are worn by the general public, politicians, the Royal Family and other public figures. It has become common to see large poppies on buses, tube trains and aeroplanes as well as on lampposts, billboards, public buildings and landmarks. Many newspapers and magazines show a poppy on their cover page, and some social network users add poppies to their avatars. Each year, an official Poppy Appeal single has been released. Celebrities have begun wearing expensive crystal-clad poppy brooches, or 'bling poppies', which are sold by the RBL. There are thousands of poppy sellers on the streets and numerous fundraising events; such as concerts, fairs, marathons and competitions. There are also many other events to raise awareness. For example, in 2011, a Second World War plane dropped 6,000 poppies over the town of Yeovil in Somerset. In 2014, the dry moat of the Tower of London was covered with 888,246 ceramic poppies – one for each soldier of the British Empire killed in World War I.
In recent years, there has been growing controversy over the Poppy Appeal. Some—including British Army veterans—have argued that the Poppy Appeal has become excessive and garish, that it is being used to marshal support behind British military campaigns, and that poppy wearing has become compulsory for public figures. Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow described it as "poppy fascism". Columnist Dan O'Neill wrote that "presenters and politicians seem to compete in a race to be first – poppies start sprouting in mid-October while the absence of a poppy is interpreted as absence of concern for the war dead, almost as an unpatriotic act of treachery". Likewise, Jonathan Bartley of the religious think-tank Ekklesia said "public figures in Britain are urged, indeed in many cases, required, to wear ... the red poppy, almost as an article of faith. There is a political correctness about the red poppy". Journalist Robert Fisk complained that the poppy has become a seasonal "fashion accessory" and that people were "ostentatiously wearing a poppy for social or work-related reasons, to look patriotic when it suited them". Controversially, some far-right groups have used the poppy as a symbol of militant British nationalism, while some Muslims have begun to reject it as a symbol of Western imperialism.
The Royal British Legion also holds a yearly poppy appeal in Northern Ireland and in 2009 raised more than £1 million. However, the wearing of poppies in Northern Ireland is controversial. It is seen by many as a political symbol and a symbol of Britishness, representing support for the British Army. The poppy has long been the preserve of the unionist/loyalist community. Loyalist paramilitaries (such as the UVF and UDA) have also used poppies to commemorate their own members who were killed in The Troubles.
Most Irish nationalists/republicans, and Irish Catholics, choose not to wear poppies; they regard the Poppy Appeal as supporting soldiers who killed Irish civilians (for example on Bloody Sunday) and who colluded with illegal loyalist paramilitaries (for example the Glenanne gang) during The Troubles. Irish nationalist groups, and victims' groups, have urged the BBC to end its policy that all presenters must wear poppies. They argue that it breaches impartiality and point out that political symbols are banned in workplaces in Northern Ireland. They also say that the BBC, as a publicly funded body, should broadly reflect the whole community. Likewise, the director of Relatives for Justice has condemned the wearing of poppies by police officers in Catholic neighbourhoods, calling it "repugnant and offensive to the vast majority of people within our community, given the role of the British Army". In the Irish Independent, it was claimed that "substantial amounts" of money raised from selling poppies are used "to build monuments to insane or inane generals or build old boys' clubs for the war elite". However, on Remembrance Day 2010 the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie was the first leader of a nationalist party to wear one.
Republic of Ireland
During World War I, all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and about 200,000 Irishmen fought in the British Army (see Ireland and World War I). Although the British Army is banned from actively recruiting in the Republic of Ireland, a small number of its citizens still enlist. The RBL thus has a branch in the Republic and holds a yearly Poppy Appeal there. The RBL also holds a wreath-laying ceremony at St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, which the President of Ireland has attended.
The Republic has its own National Day of Commemoration in July for all Irish people who died in war. However, wearing poppies is not common and they are not part of the main commemorations. This is partly due to the British Army's role in fighting against Irish independence, its activities during the War of Independence (for example the Burning of Cork) and the British Army's role in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
In the years following the War of Independence, the poppy was particularly controversial, with nationalists seeing it as a provocative symbol of British imperialism. In Dublin, British Legion marchers often had poppies snatched from their lapels, which led to street fights. In response, some poppy-wearers hid razor blades in their poppies. "As the 1930s progressed, 'Poppy Day' lost much of its violent edge in Dublin, but the wearing of the symbol also became less commonplace in subsequent decades".
In the United States, the Veterans of Foreign Wars conducted the first nationwide distribution of remembrance poppies before Memorial Day in 1922. Today, the American Legion Auxiliary distributes crepe-paper poppies in exchange for donations around Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
In Hong Kong—which was formerly part of the British Empire—the poppy is worn by some participants on Remembrance Sunday each year. It is not generally worn by the public, although The Royal British Legion's Hong Kong and China Branch sells poppies to the public in a few places in Hong Kong only.
During Victory Day 2014—which marks Nazi Germany's surrender to the Soviet Union—some Ukrainians wore remembrance poppies instead of the usual Ribbon of Saint George, as the ribbon had become associated with pro-Russian separatists. A poppy logo was designed by Sergiy Mishakin, containing the text: "1939-1945 Never Again".
Other designs and purposes
Some people choose to wear white poppies as a pacifist alternative to the red poppy. The white poppy and white poppy wreaths were introduced by Britain's Co-operative Women's Guild in 1933. Today, white poppies are sold by Peace Pledge Union or may be home-made.
To commemorate animal victims of war, Animal Aid in Britain has issued a purple poppy, which can be worn alongside the traditional red one, as a reminder that both humans and animals have been – and continue to be – victims of war. Recently, the purple poppy was abolished due to a perceived misunderstanding by the issuing organization. It was replaced by a purple paw symbol that can be worn all year round.
Protests and controversy
In 1993, The Royal British Legion complained that Cannon Fodder, a video game with an anti-war message, had planned to use a poppy on its cover. The Legion, along with some politicians, called it "offensive to millions" and "monstrous". The publisher was forced to change the cover before the game was released.
In 2010 a group of British Army veterans issued an open letter complaining that the Poppy Appeal had become excessive and garish, that it was being used to marshal support behind British military campaigns, and that people were being pressured into wearing poppies. In 2014, the group protested by holding an alternative remembrance service: they walked to The Cenotaph under the banner "Never Again" with a wreath of white poppies to acknowledge civilians killed in war. Their tops bore the message "War is Organised Murder", a quote from Harry Patch, the last survivor of World War I.
In the run-up to Remembrance Day, it has become common for UK football teams to play with artificial poppies sewn to their shirts, at the request of the Royal British Legion. This has caused some controversy. At a Celtic v Aberdeen match in November 2010, a group of Celtic supporters, called the Green Brigade, unfurled a large banner in protest at the team wearing poppies. In a statement, it said: "Our group and many within the Celtic support do not recognise the British Armed Forces as heroes, nor their role in many conflicts as one worthy of our remembrance". It gave Operation Banner (Northern Ireland), the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War as examples. In November 2011, it was proposed that the England football team should wear poppies on their shirts in a match against Spain. However, FIFA turned down the proposal, saying it would "open the door to similar initiatives" across the world, "jeopardising the neutrality of football". FIFA's decision was attacked by Prince William and Prime Minister David Cameron, who said he would back any player who ignored the ban. Members of the English Defence League (EDL) held a protest on the roof of FIFA's headquarters in Zurich. Instead, the English Football Association came up with other ways to mark Remembrance Day; for example, the England players would wear poppies before kickoff and black armbands during the match, there would be a minute's silence, a poppy wreath would be set on the pitch during the national anthems, poppies would be sold in the stadium and would be shown on the scoreboards and advertising boards. FIFA subsequently allowed the English, Scottish and Welsh teams to wear poppies on black armbands.Northern Irish footballer James McClean, who has played for a number of English teams, has received death threats and abuse since 2012 for refusing to wear a poppy on his shirt during matches. McClean is from the neighbourhood of Derry where British soldiers shot dead 14 unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday.
Other public figures have also been attacked for not wearing poppies. British journalist and newsreader Charlene White has faced racist and sexist abuse for not wearing a poppy on-screen. She explained "I prefer to be neutral and impartial on screen so that one of those charities doesn't feel less favoured than another". Newsreader Jon Snow does not wear a poppy on-screen for similar reasons. He too was criticized and he condemned what he saw as "poppy fascism". Well-known war-time journalist Robert Fisk published in November 2011 a personal account about the shifting nature of wearing a poppy, titled "Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?". While all newsreaders in the UK are expected to wear the remembrance poppy, those on the BBC's international news service are told not to. The BBC say this is because the symbol is not widely recognized overseas. The Royal British Legion condemned this, insisting that the poppy is the "international symbol of remembrance".
British Prime Minister David Cameron rejected a request from Chinese officials to remove his poppy during his visit to Beijing on Remembrance Day 2010. The poppy was deemed offensive because of its association with the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars in the 19th century, after which the Qing Dynasty was forced to tolerate the British opium trade in China and to cede Hong Kong to the UK. However, Cameron wore a poppy in 2015 when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping in London.
A 2010 Remembrance Day ceremony in London was disrupted by members of Muslims Against Crusades, who were protesting against British Army actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. They burnt large poppies and chanted "British soldiers burn in hell" during the two-minute silence. Two of the men were arrested and charged for threatening behaviour. One was convicted and fined £50. The same group planned to hold another protest in 2011, but was banned by the Home Secretary the day before the planned protest. In 2014, a campaign was begun to encourage Muslim women to wear poppy hijabs. Some criticized it as a "shrouded loyalty test" which implied that Muslims needed to prove their loyalty to Britain.
In recent years, people have been arrested in the UK for burning remembrance poppies. In November 2011 a number of people were arrested in Northern Ireland after a picture of two youths burning a poppy was posted on Facebook. The picture was reported to police by a member of the RBL. The following year, a young Canterbury man was arrested for allegedly posting a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook, on suspicion of an offence under the Malicious Communications Act.
In 2011 it was revealed that Kleshna, one of two businesses selling its own poppies on the RBL website, gives only 10% of its sales to charity. Kleshna sells crystal-clad poppy jewellery which has been worn by celebrities on television.
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