Written by Amy Harrison.
On 17 October 2018, the Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) posted a news article entitled ‘No, we did not ban poppies or Remembrance Day at Cambridge University…’. Their piece follows a series of articles appearing in national newspapers (although predominantly tabloids) which suggested that the students had voted against a motion to increase and promote Remembrance events among the student population as these were thought to ‘glorify’ the conflict. This news led to a severe backlash for the Union involved, with even the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough telling the Daily Telegraph that the motion brought ‘“great shame” to Cambridge and shows “disdain” for the armed forces’. However, as with many controversial news stories, it was not all as simple as it appeared to be, and the 17 October response hit back at these assumptions. The CUSU condemned the actions of the press, suggesting that they ‘have used Remembrance Day and Cambridge students as political football’ and led to death threats and online abuse being sent to students involved. The main motion (to advertise Remembrance Day more fully) was adapted to include all those affected by war, and both were defeated in the understanding the Union’s engagement with Remembrance Day would continue as normal.
This event is nowhere near the first to have made the news. The wearing of White Poppies was condemned in the House of Commons by Margaret Thatcher in 1986. In 2010 a group of veterans published a letter criticising the Poppy Appeal and the “showbiz hype” which the Royal British Legion’s celebrity campaigns created, protesting the heroic narrative which surrounded the commemoration. Even more recently, in 2016, FIFA decided that the national football teams of England, Wales and Scotland would not be allowed to wear black armbands with red poppies during international games. They did anyway, and Wales and Northern Ireland were fined for displaying the symbol in their stadiums. The poppy itself is a controversial symbol, and any suggestion to remove or adapt our Commemorative rituals creates high tension and an emotional response.
Officially distributed by the Royal British Legion, the iconic poppy has been available since 1921 when 9 million were sold on Remembrance Day. This first poppy appeal raised £106,000, which according to the British Legion is the equivalent of around £30million today. In 1922 the Aylesford Poppy Factory, which still produces poppies now, was established by Major George Howson and employed disabled ex-Servicemen and their dependents. The development of the symbol of the poppy has been discussed in several articles and chapters, notably Adrian Gregory in The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day, 1919-1946(1994), and Jennifer Iles in her article ‘In remembrance: The Flanders poppy’ (2008). Other scholars such as Victoria Basham (2016) and Maggie Andrews (2014) have looked at other aspects of the poppy, such as its everyday geopolitics or place within the visibility of remembrance on TV during the centenary. The image and symbol of the poppy has developed over the Century to encompass far more than the original intention, but its significance encourages controversy as well as remembrance.
The Royal British Legion’s website includes a section entitled ‘What the Poppy Means’. Under their guidelines, the poppy is: ‘A symbol of Remembrance and hope’, ‘Worn by millions of people’, and ‘Red because of the natural colour of field poppies’. The poppy is NOT: ‘A symbol of death or a sign of support for war’, ‘A reflection of politics or religion’, or ‘Red to reflect the colour of blood’. They also emphasise that it is a personal choice. However, in all the above scholarly articles, news pieces and in a large number of comments that can be found on these pages, and over social media, it is obvious to see that the Royal British Legion’s ‘official’ description of the poppy’s symbolism is not shared by all. As Jennifer Iles suggests, the poppy has become a symbol, not only for national and local remembrance, but also for personal and unofficial rituals. Nowhere is this shown more than on the Western Front, and in all the cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Families and other visitors place wreaths, crosses, and images all embossed with the iconic poppy upon graves and memorials. Similarly, Maggie Andrews illustrates this connection between personal and public remembrance through the importance of radio broadcasting the cenotaph ceremony and silence through the 1920s, linking personal and public rituals. She also makes the extremely relevant point, even more so now four years on, that the war has become part of the ‘cultural capital’ of the nation. In order to show citizenship, it is now required to show knowledge and understanding of wars that the individuals did not live through or have any link to at all.
The poppy will continue to have political and cultural significance despite the aims put in place by the British Legion, as shown in the case of the Cambridge University Student Union. We individually decide how to engage with the Poppy Appeal, and consider what is acceptable and unacceptable in our own commemoration, but in the Union’s own words, ‘We do care, and beyond remembering those who have been affected by past conflicts, we should also do whatever is in our power to learn from the past and ensure that it never happens again.
Amy Harrison is a PhD student at the University of Kent exploring the experience and development of sites with preserved and reconstructed landscape on the Western Front.
Image Credit: CC by Prescott Pym/Flickr.