‘White poppies are attention-seeking rubbish’
Is it wrong to wear a white poppy? A century after the end of the First World War, some are wearing a white poppy instead of the traditional red, to symbolise peace. Are they disrespectful?
At 11am on Sunday, November 11, the country will fall silent to remember the soldiers who died in the First World War. Millions will be wearing red poppies as a symbol of remembrance — but an increasing number of people are choosing to wear a white flower instead.
Poppies grew on many fields in France and Belgium where the deadliest battles of the First World War took place. The flower is famously referred to in John McCrae’s war poem, “In Flanders Fields”, where “the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row”.
Since 1921, the red poppy has been used as a symbol to remember the British soldiers who fought and died in the war — and as a pledge that history should not repeat itself. In fact, the first were printed with the slogan “Never Again”.
The white poppy was introduced 12 years later by the Co-operative Women’s Guild, which feared the original message of peace was being lost. They were a symbol of “all victims of war”, including enemy soldiers, civilians, and the women left behind when their fathers, husbands or brothers were killed.
White poppies are now sold by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), which claims the red flowers are too focused on British casualties, and are used to glorify current wars abroad.
“Suffering does not stop at national borders, and nor should remembrance,” says the PPU website.
But many disagree with them. Last month, Conservative MP Johnny Mercer called white poppies “attention-seeking rubbish” and encouraged people to “ignore the wearers of them. If you don’t want to wear a poppy don’t bother; they fought and died so you could choose. But don’t deliberately try and hijack it’s symbolism for your own ends.”
The Royal British Legion, which sells the red poppy, insists that it represents “remembrance and hope” and is not “a sign of support for war”. It says that it has no problem with people wearing a different colour, or wearing the two together.
Is it wrong to wear a white poppy?
Of course not, say some. The red poppy has become associated with divisive politics, like unionism in Northern Ireland and right-wing groups in England. Meanwhile, the white poppy is faithful to the original message of remembrance chosen by survivors of the First World War: never again. That includes current wars in places like Syria and Yemen, where most victims are civilians.
It’s disrespectful, argue others. By wearing the white poppy, people are politicising the remembrance campaign and taking attention away from the sacrifice of men and women who died for their freedom. It is ridiculous to say that the red poppy in any way supports war. The poppy appeal highlights war’s horrors, as well as supporting veterans and their families.
- Are you wearing a poppy this year? If so, what colour is it and why?
- Are all wars wrong?
- Create your own artwork or installation for your school ahead of Remembrance Day, using the symbol of poppies. Their colour is up to you.
- Produce a video or presentation explaining the history of the poppy in more detail.
Some People Say...
“There’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”Alan Bennett, The History Boys
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- According to the Peace Pledge Union, 101,000 white poppies were sold last year. They peaked in 2015 (when 110,000 were sold) but the group believes that they will break that record this year due to the centenary. For comparison, The Poppy Factory (which employs disabled veterans to make red poppies) produces around 36 million each year.
- What do we not know?
- Whether white poppies will keep growing in popularity, or whether their numbers will remain relatively low. We also do not know how feelings about remembrance will change generally as time passes, especially as the Second World War generation ages. Today, most of the soldiers who fought in that war will be in their 90s or older.
- First World War
- 1914-1918. It is 100 years since the armistice was signed which ended that war.
- Several significant First World War battles took place in the Belgian provinces of East Flanders and West Flanders, including the battles of Ypres and Passchendaele.
- The belief that Northern Ireland should remain a part of the United Kingdom. The red poppy is specifically a symbol for the British Army, a figure of mistrust for Irish republicans (who believe the island of Ireland should be a whole, independent nation).
- Right-wing groups
- For example, the far-right party Britain First often uses poppy imagery to appeal to people’s sense of patriotism. Back in 2006, Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow hit out against the “unpleasant breed of poppy fascism out there” which pressured people to wear poppies.
- Syria and Yemen
- At least 470,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war since 2011, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research. Although the death toll in Yemen’s war is unclear, some have put it at around 50,000.