White Poppies For Peace

November 11, 2011 by staff 

White Poppies For Peace, In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. – In Flanders Fields, John McCrae, 1915

IT is a prime location, a spot usually reserved for the latest two-for-one offer or new product launch. Yesterday the supermarket’s advertising sign displayed a photo of a poppy-wearing Andy Murray, Britain’s tennis number one, ranked third in the world, with the simple message: “Please remember those who serve our country.”

Inside, Mr Roger Short and Mr Bob Glass, members of the Rotary Club of Strathendrick, part of a battalion of 10,000 volunteers giving their time on behalf of the charity Poppyscotland, were engaged in the business of remembering by selling poppies. They were there for various reasons – because it was important to remember, to look after the wounded when they came home, to honour the dead. Mr Short’s father returned from the First World War badly injured. He spent 18 months in hospital, shell-shocked, and with one lung. When he died many decades later there was still shrapnel in his leg.

From 24-year-old multimillionaire sportsmen to slightly older gentlemen, the support for Armistice Day stretches across society. Not to every part, though. There are those who continue to shun the poppy as a symbol of British imperialism, as a signal of support for war, even a badge of religion. Some of them will sport a white poppy today to show their support for peace. Others will sport no poppy at all.

What we know is that increasing numbers are choosing to wear a poppy, thereby helping to support ex-service personnel and their families. In 2010, the Scottish Poppy Appeal raised £2.35 million –5% up on the previous year, and a 50% increase in the past five years. Either there is an awful lot of warmongering imperialists out there, or Britain has truly taken the poppy to its heart.

Poppyscotland must hope that is the case. As The Herald reported this week, the organisation is looking again at how it raises money to support veterans. Besides the annual two week Scottish Poppy Appeal it wants to have events year-round. Like the armed forces, the profile of veterans is changing. The old guards in need of help are being replaced by younger soldiers from recent wars.

Such a shift in fundraising tactics is not without risk. The Poppy Appeal, because it happens for a short time, focuses attention. To an increasingly cash-strapped public faced with requests to help everything from neglected children to the white rhino, the Poppy Appeal is a simple and familiar cause. There is no signing up to monthly direct debits, no student trying to “chug” bank details from you, and, as the Andy Murray ad showed, no emotional pressure, just a polite request. All that is required is to put money in the collecting tin, take a poppy (or not), and be on your way. Would that other charity fundraising was so civilised.

For appeals to go on year-round, methods will have to change. One hopes not too much. As the number of volunteers shows, the Poppy Appeal is a very British one, helped along by people who do their bit year in, year out, horizontal rain or not. While no-one would argue against bringing in more money for a good cause, there is something special, hand-knitted, about the Poppy Appeal, and the goodwill it attracts as a result.

It hasn’t always been that straightforward. Not too long ago Armistice Day occasioned annual features in the newspapers about the politics of poppy wearing. Like Christmas gift guides and shots of Ladies Day at Royal Ascot, they were an old reliable. One newsreader, Channel 4’s Jon Snow, famously called it “poppy fascism” to suggest that not wearing a poppy on air was disrespectful. Unconvinced, TV production assistants still keep boxes of them to hand, ready to pin them like medals of allegiance on forgetful guests or presenters.

Sporting a poppy can bring problems too. Fifa banned the wearing of Remembrance poppies by the Scotland and England football teams at internationals this weekend, lest it cause offence, or open the door to other insignia. The poppy was too political for Fifa, too much of a threat to the image of “one big happy football family” the organisation likes to punt. No place for politics in the beautiful game? Someone ought to tell the supporters; they might want to change a few songs, including the one that mentions two world wars and one world cup.

Following interventions by David Cameron and Prince William, both arguing that the poppy had no political, religious or commercial connotations, a compromise was reached and the poppies will now be worn on the players’ black armbands.

While that skirmish ended successfully, the war over poppies may not be over entirely. There’s still the battle over ignorance. When Charlie Gilmour, son of the Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, appealed against his 16-month sentence for, among other matters, swinging from a flag on the Cenotaph during a student fees protest, part of his defence was that he didn’t know what he was clambering over. Besides being a prize Charlie, young Gilmour was at the time a student at Cambridge University. Studying history.

Not all young people should be tarred with his idiot brush. Poppyscotland’s own research found that 18-24 year olds were the most switched-on about poppies and what they meant. This, of course, is the same age group who are most likely to know someone who has fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Iraq, perhaps more than any other factor, has done most to change attitudes about poppies. Almost a century on from the First World War, Iraq is a reminder of the brutal facts about conflict – that politicians do the talking, youngsters do the fighting, and families do the weeping.

Those who buy a poppy are not backing war, they are showing respect for those that have died, suffered, and continue to suffer, because of it. Others will have different ways of expressing those feelings without wearing a poppy. It is, and always should be, a personal choice.

That we have such a choice stands as an eternal tribute to those, the ones that died in Flanders fields and further from home, who did not have any.

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