PETER FROST traces the history and symbolism of the remembrance poppy red and white
One hundred years ago on November 18 1917 the Battle of the Somme ended. The British press and the officer classes declared it a spectacular victory.
That one battle resulted in a million casualties, nearly 60,000 British troops died on just the first day. In all, the battle lasted nearly four months and at the end the Allied forces had moved the front line just seven miles forward.
This year the Establishment will celebrate that victory while families like ours will remember people like my wife Ann’s grandfather Fred, who perished in the Battle of the Somme just days after he arrived in France.
Fred has no known grave. Just his name carved among the thousands on the walls of the Tyne Cot Memorial. He left a widow and four children including young Fred, Ann’s dad then aged just six — the annual red poppy was the only memory of his dad he ever had. No wonder he wore it with pride.
Ann has fond memories of dad Fred taking her every year to the Cenotaph. Dad would always buy Ann a new winter coat for the outing.
They would inspect the many red poppy wreaths at the Cenotaph and the single colourful wreath of orchids and other tropical blooms celebrating the fact that not all those who laid down their lives were white or British.
Ann and Fred would then walk to Westminster Abbey to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Outside in the garden they would plant their own personal wooden cross and poppy with Granddad Fred’s name on it.
Ann still makes sure there is a cross and poppy for both Freds planted outside Westminster Abbey every Remembrance Day.
Why the poppy, Britain’s most colourful weed, as the symbol of remembrance? The corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) — also known as the corn rose, field poppy, Flanders poppy or red poppy — has found itself a unique evolutionary niche. It probably originated in north Africa or ancient Persia. We do know how it travelled. It hitched a lift in the clay jars of seed corn that ancient traders trafficked all over the known world.
Ancient farmers in Britain, Flanders and just about everywhere else would buy a bushel or so of seed from a passing Phoenician and get a free bonus of colourful poppy seeds.
They soon discovered that the poppy seed had plenty of uses in bread and cakes and boiled up in a tea it even possessed magical curative powers.
It had developed its tiny rock-hard seed that could last a long time before it found somewhere to grow. Did you know that some poppy seeds found in funereal jars in ancient tombs have been successfully germinated?
That of course is the explanation of the huge flowering of poppies in Flanders. As shells, bombs and trench-digging disturbed the soil, poppy seeds that had lain dormant so long got warmth, moisture and sunlight and burst into scarlet flower.
Up to 10 million soldiers were killed in WWI — estimates of civilian deaths top 1.4m.
As the men returned home, many of them with shell-shock, or what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they had stories to tell.
Those who had seen horrors in Belgium and northern France also would tell a much encouraging story of the extraordinary beauty, persistence and profusion of the fragile but defiant flower — the blood red corn poppy.
Strangely, it was returning north American soldiers who first adopted the red poppy as an emblem.
US organisations arranged for artificial poppies to be made by women in war-torn France. The money raised went to children war orphans.
British soldiers too came back from the grimness of war to find that life wasn’t fit for heroes as they had been promised. Just like today returning heroes found the government off-hand and tardy dealing with their problems.
Some organised themselves into ex-servicemen’s societies of various political opinions and of varying degrees of militancy. In 1921 many of these organisations united to form the British Legion.
Its purpose was to provide support and to fight for the rights of ex-servicemen, especially the disabled, and their families. In fact what actually happened was it became one of the richest British charities ever.
In 1921 it bought one-and-a-half million of those French-made artificial poppies and sold them to the British public, raising over £10,000 — poppy day had been invented.
Soon it set up its own poppy factory which employed disabled ex-servicemen to make them. Today they produce and sell over 45 million lapel poppies, 120,000 wreaths and one million small wooden remembrance crosses. Just like the one Ann plants to remember her dad and granddad.
Not everyone chooses to wear the red poppy or indeed any poppy. Some see them as glorifying war and militaristic thinking. In many people’s eyes they have become a badge of jingoism and a justification of recent foreign wars.
The idea of detaching the poppy from a militaristic culture dates back as far as 1926. The No More War Movement suggested that the British Legion should be asked to imprint No More War in the centre of the red poppies instead of Haig Fund.
Douglas “Butcher” Haig was the British general who had ordered so many of his troops to their deaths at the Battle of the Somme. When it came to lions led by donkeys, Haig was certainly our biggest donkey — two million brave lions died under his orders.
Sadly the Legion chose to keep Haig’s name on their poppies until 1994.
In 1933 the first white poppies appeared, mostly home-made and worn mainly by members of the Co-operative Women’s Guild.
Just a year later the Peace Pledge Union was formed and it began widespread distribution of white peace poppies in November each year. Just as today, it took real courage and real commitment to wear the white peace poppy.
So whichever you wear, red or white, both or none? Just remember they shouldn’t be about glorifying war and militaristic thinking but about the respect each of us should feel for those who paid the greatest price in the futility of war.