The Lord Mayor of Sheffield caused a stir recently when he refused to wear a red poppy, in favour of the white. With the passing of the Centenary of Armistice Day last Sunday, the red poppy has become a familiar sight everywhere, from television to social media and our day-to-day lives. The pervasiveness of this symbol shows respect and acknowledgement for the actions and sacrifices of the men and women who served in British and Allied armies since the conflict billed as the “war to end all wars”, and rightly so.
A less discussed and often maligned symbol in modern British remembrance is the white poppy, which has very little representation in mainstream media and is often greeted with the air of hostility directed at the Lord Mayor. This comes from the idea that wearing it is in competition with the nation-ally accepted gold standard of remembrance, the Royal British Legion’s iconic red.
Made and distributed by the Peace Pledge Union, it stands alongside its British Legion’s cousin in honouring the service and sacrifice of this nation’s soldiers, but also crucially keeps an emphasis on the loss of civilians, and the deaths of soldiers from all other countries, recognising the universality of human suffering.
Most people would easily agree with the white poppy’s recognition of the suffering of civilians in war, with anywhere between 30-60 mil-lion killed in World War Two alone. This figure includes civilians killed in the Blitz, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the ensuing Soviet invasion and capitulation of Germany and all other theatres where civilians were killed.
If the white poppy were to be judged solely on this difference, therefore it would clearly not be the divisive issue it is today. However, its remembrance of soldiers on all sides who lost their sides lies at the heart of the red and white debate. Many will, for good reason, find it difficult to accept the idea of remembrance of the German’s who died during the Second World War.
We have, after all, all grown up with the idea of evil jackbooted Nazi stormtroopers, mercilessly subjugating Europe, planted firmly in our national consciousness. It is undeniable that many men in Ger-many’s armies during that conflict carried out unspeakable horrors; to imply that every German soldier did this is a gross misunderstanding of history. Even more unforgivably, German soldiers who fought in the First World War who deserve no (or at least significantly less) moral revulsion are not remembered by the red poppy.
Many argue that this can be justified by consigning remembrance to national borders: let us remember our glorious dead with the red poppy, leaving other countries to grieve for their own. This is not the case, as previously stated, the red poppy remembers British and al-lied dead, meaning that the British legion, for example, is also remembering the sacrifice of Italian dead in the First World War but not the Second.
While the red poppy mostly stands for perfectly noble causes, it also contains tensions in the way it carries out the act of remembrance and, crucially, is presented as the sole path to remembrance in this country when this is certainly not the case.
Some believe the white should replace the red; this seems to be a step too far.
The contributions raised by the Royal British Legion through the sales of the red poppy hugely benefit veterans through financial and social relief and is too deeply revered in this country to discard.
I would argue instead that the white poppy certainly deserves more of a place in our national remembrance and less hostility; if the continuation of peace should be the main objective of remembrance, a more holistic form of national mourning should be considered.