Remembrance Sunday is coming up very soon, and is an important day for many people. You'll soon be seeing red poppies all over the place, but what does the white poppy stand for? Jo Boon discusses the message behind the white poppy and why it's such an important issue for her.
The white poppy is very important to me for many reasons: it represents peace, it would make my Grandad proud and, campaigning to allow them in my school was a turning point in my activism. It is important to me both for what it originally represented, and what it has come to represent to me personally. The white poppy is sold by the Peace Pledge Union, and this is their message: ‘There are three elements to the meaning of white poppies: they represent remembrance for all victims of war, a commitment to peace and a challenge to attempts to glamorise or celebrate war.’
The White Poppy was first produced in 1933 by the Co-operative Women's Guild, and I must admit that this too forms no small part in their importance to me. As stated in the quote above, the white poppy remembers ‘all victims of war’; most of whom are civilians and many of whom are women. I do not think war should be glamorised; even if necessary it is still a tragedy and to be avoided whenever possible. When we remember, we must face up to the reality of the most awful loss of life and the impact on those we often ignore. How and what we remember are often highly selective.
My family, like most others, fought in the World Wars and my Grandad disliked Remembrance Day. He thought it disrespectful that we should treat those who died as heroes, when really, they had been 'tricked'. My Grandad thought he was fighting for a better world; but when he came back, it was just a little worse. He was by no means alone in this, and I believe we have a duty to remember what happened, not what we would like to have happened. We must face up to unpalatable truths like the fact thousands of men were referred to as ‘canon- fodder’ and that those who did return were not treated as heroes, but often left unemployed while their mental health was ridiculed. * Britain are not heroes in a story; ‘we’ knew about the camps and chose to bomb Dresden, instead of the railroads leading to the camps. There is no glory or honour in war.
The red poppy, in my opinion, has become part of a highly selective remembering that glorifies war- something that the white poppy strives to counter, both in its symbolism and financial support of the Peace Pledge Union. Someone once told me they found it insulting that I choose to wear a white poppy; well, I find it insulting that you do not see fit to allow me to honour my Grandfather, his legacy, and all those affected by war. I respect and remember all those caught up in conflict, but I chose to do so with the goal of minimising that terrible loss. The whole purpose of remembering is to learn from the past- and I see nothing wrong in the lesson that peace is to be preserved.
During WW2 my Grandad was, at one stage, guarding prisoners of war. One German soldier refused to eat- my Grandad did not understand this until he realised that the German’s had been spreading propaganda that the British were poisoning prisoner’s food, to paint the Brits as monsters (Britain in turn was spreading similar propaganda.) He ate some of the food in front of this soldier to show him that it wasn’t poisoned. I understand that my Grandad will have killed during the war, but I am proud that he saved a life when he could.
Aside from petitioning for women to be allowed to wear trousers at school, this was the first cause where I met real resistance. I wanted to be allowed to wear my white poppy at school, but the senior management were appalled. I was selected to do a reading at the Remembrance Service, and heavy hints of suspension were dropped if I wore the white poppy on stage. I wore the white poppy, some of the ex- serviceman asked what it meant, I told them, and they loved it, asking where they could buy them. One man congratulated my initiative in front of a senior staff member- they decided not to suspend me after all.
Looking back, it was a ridiculous over reaction in the first place; but at the time it felt like a very real choice between being the ‘good student’, who was given responsibilities, and facing up to what I saw as my moral responsibilities. It may sound like a small thing, but it was a fairly major turning point for me. I was ambitious, and was used to being approved of by the ‘system’, I loved school and respected my teachers. So, to go against that, and ‘break the rules’ was my own personal. ‘or worse, expelled’, Hermione Granger moment. I’m afraid I can still be a goody two shoes, but at least I know I have enough of a backbone to stand up for what I believe to be right. After all, if my Grandad could save a German soldier during war, surely, I could wear a white poppy while I read the words:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
* I very much respect the work that the Royal British Legion does with the money from the red poppy, and I absolutely understand people wishing to give to this cause- I myself have done so on many occasions. However, I personally think it is also important to support the work of charities such as The Peace Pledge Union, to prevent these issues arising in the first place and to promote peace whenever possible.