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How Should We Remember? The Controversy of Remembrance Day Poppies

The 11th of November 2018 marked the centennial of the armistice of the First World War, an agreement between countries of the Entente and the Central Powers to end WWI. Armistice Day is a memorial day in Canada and other British Commonwealth states, established in 1919 as a day to remember the sacrifices of all those who fought, served, and died in the Great War. In 1931, the day was officially renamed Remembrance Day and became a day to commemorate all fallen soldiers, not exclusively those of World War I.

After the First World War, red poppies became an important symbol for remembrance because they grow in Flanders, Belgium, where important battles, such as the battles of Ypres and the Battle of Passchendaele, took place. Their symbolism was inspired through the words of Canadian Lieutenant General John McCrae: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row,” (1-2), from his famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, written in the spring of 1915. Wearing flowers for remembrance is a tradition that has existed since 1921 and has continued in Canada, Great Britain, and Belgium, and in France with the bleuet (cornflower), ever since. However, the concept of wearing red poppies has become a controversial subject due to its ostensible celebration of war, or the presence of “poppy fascism”.

After almost 100 years of poppy symbolism in Commonwealth states, anti-war pacifists believe the red poppy has become toxic. They have accused poppies as a means to celebrate war and death, rather than symbolizing the remembrance of those who fought for their countries. Due to these pacifist movements, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) introduced the white poppy, with a green centre that bears the word “PEACE”, to replace poppies that are red in colour. Pacifists claim that the white poppy symbolizes peace and anti-war ideology. In fact, in a video on the PPU website, supporters claim that “the red poppy only symbolizes military dead”, and they wish to commemorate “the human cost of war.” According to white poppy pacifists, the white poppy “remembers all victims of all wars, not just the Allied military dead.” There has been much discussion and debate on whether a white poppy should be valued over a red poppy. These issues also bring into question other poppies that have manifested throughout the years, such as the purple poppy, a symbol of remembrance in the United Kingdom that exists to remember all animals that served during wartime.

As aforementioned, another primary reason for combatting against red poppies for remembrance is due to so-called “poppy fascism”. Because the red poppy is seen as a “universal symbol of remembrance and hope, including hope for a positive future and peaceful world” (Royal British Legion, Twitter), strong supporters of military forces have spoken up with hateful words against those who chose to not wear a poppy. This has caused a continuous chain of events: poppy supporters accusing one of being anti-patriotic for not wearing a poppy, and therefore causing bad taste among the subject of poppies, ironically and unintentionally pressuring more people not to wear poppies in the process. Truthfully, wearing a poppy should not be obligatory, though many strong supporters are so moved by their emotional connection to war that they feel insulted by those who do not support the veterans in this conventional manner.

In conclusion, white versus red poppy debates, as well as poppy fascism, have transformed the topic of remembrance into a controversy. I believe that this has caused complete loss of the true meaning of Remembrance Day for the Commonwealth people. In truth, the way in which one remembers the cost of war should be subjective. The question of remembrance and symbolism is not objective, and therefore a winner of the debate remains undecided after years of existence. It is important that one takes time to remember the historical events that have taken place to create the world we live in today.

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