Poppy debate blossoms on Remembrance Sunday

At 11am today, the UK will fall silent to remember those who have died serving their country. Poppies will appear on the lapels of people all over the world. But what does the flower mean?

‘In Flanders Fields the poppies grow’, wrote the war poet John McCrae, in 1915. The poem, which McCrae composed after witnessing the death of a close friend, evokes the fragile, blood-coloured flowers that bloomed in No Man’s Land during World War I, and grew on the newly-dug graves of fallen soldiers.

This weekend we revisit the poem for Remembrance day. Each year, red paper poppies spring from buttonholes all over the UK, to mark the Armistice declaration of November 11th 1918, and to show respect and remembrance for soldiers everywhere who have died in war. Poppy sales have increased in recent years. But the controversy surrounding them has, too.

The international football body FIFA recently banned England players from wearing poppies, saying that no political, religious or commercial symbols are allowed in international games. There was widespread outcry. FIFA finally relented when Prince William personally intervened, arguing that the poppy was apolitical, and a ‘universal symbol of remembrance.’

Last November, the Prime Minister and other politicians refused to remove their poppies during a trade visit to China. There, the symbol is an offensive reminder of the notorious Opium Wars of the 19th Century.

And while the right to show the poppy is currently causing a stir, last year newsreader Jon Snow fought to be allowed to choose not to wear the symbol. When criticised for not wearing his poppy on air, Snow argued that he preferred to express remembrance in his own way, saying that the pressure on people to display their grief with the flower amounted to ‘poppy fascism’.

Instead of the red poppy sold by the British Legion, many people today are opting for a white version, representing peace. Some believe the poppy has turned into a fashion statement. Others think its symbolism has become tied up with a patriotism that implicitly supports war: they point out that, at the close of McCrae’s poem, there is an instruction to ‘take up the quarrel with the foe.’

Symbol of remembrance?

For many people, there is nothing controversial about the poppy. A symbol of remembrance, it marks a simple respect for those who have given their lives for us. By keeping our poppies visible, and respecting the symbol’s profound yet simple meaning, we ensure that the noble dead will not be forgotten.

Symbols, others argue, are by nature controversial, and packed with hidden meaning. The poppy can imply many things: support for the cause behind a war, patriotism, even a belief in conflict as a positive force. To examine and debate the poppy’s meaning is a wiser response to war than unquestioning grief.

You Decide

  1. Is it important to wear a poppy to respect and remember those fallen in war?
  2. Can a symbol ever be non-political?


  1. Design an alternative memorial symbol, to commemorate those killed in recent, as well as historical wars.
  2. Read In Flanders Fields , then use it as a base to explore other poetry of the first world war. Read Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est and Lawrence Binyon’s For the Fallen . How do they compare to McCrae’s poem?

Some People Say...

“Poppies keep us stuck in the past. We should be thinking about the future.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why did people start wearing poppies?
After reading In Flanders Fields, humanitarian Moina Michael began wearing and distributing poppies in New York. They were officially adopted by the British Legion in 1921.
Where are poppies worn now?
In the USA, poppies have now been largely replaced by ribbons worn for Veterans Day. But they continue to be worn widely across the UK, and the British Legion distributes the paper flowers to 120 countries around the world.
What is the money raised spent on?
The British Legion is a charity that supports ex-servicemen and women. It provides help for soldiers who have been injured, campaigns for the rights of those in the military, and is responsible for the two minutes’ silence on Remembrance Sunday and November 11th.

Word Watch

No Man’s Land
The area between the two sides’ front trenches during WWI, where much of the fighting took place. Between battles, the area was uninhabited and highly dangerous, with landmines and machine gun fire.
The governing body for international football. Recently FIFA has been involved in several controversies relating to corruption which have brought its reputation into disrepute.
Opium Wars
The culmination of trade disputes between Britain and China, beginning in 1839. The British defeated the Chinese in 1842. British troops were fighting so that British companies would be allowed to trade the drug opium to China. Opium is derived from the poppy plant.
British Legion
A UK-based charity, responsible for the distribution and sale of poppies, which are used to fund services for ex-armed forces personnel.

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