November 11 is one of the few days of the year where history is placed at the centre of public discourse, as Britain stops to commemorate the victims of war. Two of our resident historians, Laura and Fraser, have marked the occasion by discussing how their appreciation of Remembrance Day has been shaped by their studies, and in particular, how being historians has influenced their choice of whether to wear a poppy.
For – Laura
In May 1915, Canadian solider John McCrae wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ following the Second Battle of Ypres. Depending on whom you ask, wearing poppies began as an American or French tradition towards the end of the First World War, and became a source of revenue for veterans’ services in the 1920s. Fast forward to the late-1990s when, in my primary school, we were taught about the poppy and learned the words to ‘In Flanders Fields’. To this day I can still recite the poem by memory- well done Canadian public school system.
For a few years I have been reflecting on why I choose to wear a poppy in the first few weeks of November. For a long time I think it was merely habit. I’m an historian, it’s probably not shocking that I have a love of tradition. It is only recently that I learned I have lived in two of the few countries that have a poppy tradition; besides Canada and the UK, the others are South Africa and New Zealand (though Kiwis do for Anzac day). Since moving to multicultural Edinburgh I’ve begun to think critically about why I, as a human and as an historian, continue to wear a poppy.
Crucially, my entire PhD thesis is focused on the commemoration of war, though my war (the Scottish Wars of Independence) happened 700 years ago. Therefore, I see every single day the affect that remembrance and memory have on public knowledge. Whether I agree with how commemorations of Wallace, Bruce, and Bannockburn are carried out or not, without the public recognizing these people and events as something worthy of commemoration, my citing them in an offhand manner just then would mean nothing to any of you readers. And I wouldn’t have a PhD thesis. As a former-medievalist, I see how easily events of the past can be ‘forgotten’ by the public. If it takes wearing a poppy for people to remember, than I am all for it.
You also cannot argue with the numbers. Around £40 million is raised each year in the UK alone, often for programs and supports that governments don’t fund (which is a whole seperate issue). Ideally, people would not need an excuse to give money in the aid of veterans, but clearly we do. Until these programs are funded in another way, poppies are the best option available.
I think the biggest criticism of poppy-wearing, and in my opinion the most convincing one, is the notion that poppies contribute to glorification of war. As is always the case in history, I think this statement really depends on your definition of glorification. I see glorification as the on-going veneration and idolising of events of various wars. In that case, we are constantly engaging in the glorification of war. Think of the films, monuments, books, and scholarship on war-related activities that we encounter all the time. While the wearing of poppies is a symptom of glorification, I think it is a lot more far reaching than a plastic flower. Perhaps we should be fighting the disease, rather than the symptom.
Ultimately, as with all commemoration, you need to do what makes sense for you. I would never fault someone for wearing a white poppy, I don’t think there should be a witch-hunt for the staff member who photoshopped a poppy onto David Cameron’s lapel last week (and really, can you blame them?), and I think all this fuss about which type of poppy a person wears is ridiculous. From my perspective, I can’t fully appreciate what anyone has been through a war has experienced, and hopefully I never will. I can, however, wear my poppy, recite a poem, and take two minutes on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to reflect, appreciate, and remember.
Against – Fraser
Since moving to Britain, I’ve become aware of the ubiquity of poppies on lapels in the weeks leading up to November 11. While I was naturally aware of the general meaning behind this particular symbol, I was not quite prepared for it to be more or less compulsory for any and all public figures, from politicians to comedians. For those who make the choice not to wear the poppy, the reaction can be severe, as some like footballer James McClean have discovered over the past few years.
Of course, such reactions are more the product of fringe nationalism rather than mainstream opinion. For most, wearing the poppy is a sign of remembrance, of support for the ordinary men and women who were caught up in conflicts and paid the price. Indeed, the sheer ubiquity of the poppy does help to dispel any political connotations it might have. I don’t have a problem with anyone choosing to wear one for whatever reason they deem appropriate. Despite this, however, there are several reasons why I have made the personal choice to not wear one.
I suppose I could fall back on the excuse that having grown up in Australia, Anzac Day feels a more natural occasion for commemoration of this sort, and that my personal attachment to Remembrance Day is less well developed. Having this justification up my sleeve might be convenient should I find myself in the midst of an EDL march today. However, hiding behind it would be intellectual sophistry as I also try to avoid participating in the pageantry of Anzac Day, beyond having a taste for the eponymous biscuits.
Two-up, on the other hand, is just a bit dull now that it’s legal and above board.
This desire to abstain from participating in a symbolic way is very much tied to my identity as a historian. My historical research focus is in the interwar period, and the consequences and reality of both world wars are something I confront daily through my research in a multitude of ways. Thanks to my studies, I have developed a morbid fascination with the symbols and meanings contained in war memorials, and deal frequently with other forms of myth and memory surrounding loss and war. Putting aside a particular day, be it in April or November, simply doesn’t reflect the reality of remembrance to me. As such, I feel no personal need to overtly demonstrate the fact I remember the horror of war. It’s my job to remember.
I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that wearing the poppy should be policed in any way. I believe there are valid concerns about the place the military holds in public life, and that the line between glorifying war and remembering its victims is not always clear in public discourse. ‘Supporting our troops’ is far too convenient a shield to deflect criticism of militarism, and I think it’s certainly fair to question whether the poppy and the other pageantry surrounding Remembrance Day has been used for this purpose. The longstanding tradition of wearing a white poppy – to symbolise a pacifistic basis for commemoration – is an elegant solution to this problem for many, but also one that seems to concede that attempts to police the wearing of poppies are legitimate.
In the end, whatever one’s personal choice of adornment today, it should not distract us from the realities that overt public commemoration can conceal. As a society, we do owe a debt to those who have sacrificed their mental and physical health on the battlefield, whatever one thinks of the conflicts that caused the injuries – especially if one believes that our society has glorified military service using these very tropes to encourage enlistment in the first place. As an ex-serviceman of my acquaintance recently put it, a government that can find the countless billions necessary to fund a war has a moral obligation to find the money needed to support the veterans left behind. Relying on charities to pick up the pieces, including those selling poppies today, is simply not an adequate response from us or our government.