Friday, November 11, 2011


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.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

It is a beautiful piece of poetry, entirely suited to honouring and remembering those who died in the mad, futile slaughter of World War 1. However, I do wonder what its author, John McRae, would think if he knew how the symbol of his poem, the poppy, has been appropriated since.

Today is Remembrance Day, when the Commonwealth remembers those who died in First World War, and in other conflicts beside. Even the most ardent pacifist can see that a day when people remember those who have fallen in battle, regardless of how you viewed those conflicts, is necessary and right. It has become custom to wear a poppy as a sign of that remembrance and for many years it was an innocent, selfless thing to do, a decision left entirely up to an individual.

But then something changed. You would think that as the years passed to the compulsion to wear a poppy would fade. You would be wrong. It has grown. And as the clamour for the poppy to be worn has grown, so has the backlash from those who don't wish to. To the point where there two sides have formed, both as intractable as the other, and both as boring.

Every year the right wing press in the UK watch TV with a gimlet eye. Heaven forfend that a BBC presenter should appear without a poppy in their buttonhole for this be proof that the national broadcaster is indeed the hotbed of pinko liberal sentiment its swivel-eyed detractors believe it to be. Unfortunately, the ludicrousness of this argument compels those who feel wearing a poppy is in some way glorifying war to equally hysterical heights, and hurl back insults about 'poppy fascists.'

This week the whole charade reached its nadir. The England football team, that brave bunch of stout hearts who are never fearful of lying down and dying in some foreign field, and arguing with the ref while they're doing it, wanted to wear a poppy emblem on their strip in a friendly match versus Spain tomorrow night. No big deal, you might think, if slightly ostentatious and unnecessary. After all, I don't remember them asking to wear it during previous matches arranged around the time of Remembrance Day. However, the Germans, who, let's face it, might be the most offended by the gesture, said they didn't mind.

In stepped Fifa, the sports' governing body and never knowingly reasonable, who said a a minute's silence was fine, as was the wearing of black armbands, but that the poppy was a political symbol, and that to allow the England team to wear it would set a precedent for other teams. I suppose they feared other national teams wearing symbols to honour the dead in slightly more controversial wars and battles. 

Cue an intense and very silly debate, in which it was variously recommended that the English players should a) wear the poppy anyway or b) cancel the match. Given the hype, hoopla and dullness that surrounds the national side these days, I was well in favour of b) though not for any reasons to do with a poppy. In the end, a compromise was found and the England team will wear a kit with a poppy emblem on their armbands. If only a similar level of negotiation and diplomacy was possible back in 1914...

But at least it shone a light on how preposterous the poppy debate has become. Hopefully, moving forward, we can drop the daft arguments about why people will or won't wear it, and remember what the idea of remembrance is all about. The quiet, civil consideration given to the deaths of millions of men and women in battle, and a reminder why such conflicts, particularly pertinent in these days of spurious politician and oil men's wars, should only ever be a last resort.


Dan - Friday.


  1. Dan, this is intriguing, as your posts always are. The poppy controversy has not reached these heights here in the colonies, yet. Poppies have the same symbolism here, though. Paper ones are sold for donations to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. So I imagine the lunatics here, who never pass up an opportunity to be public ally insane, will soon appoint their own poppy police, headed no doubt by Rush Limbaugh and Sara Palin. Since I am a confirmed pacifist, a philosophy instilled in me by my father the WWII combat Marine, I have been trying to prepare myself for the poppy war eventuality. Perhaps pacifists need their own poppyish symbol. I considered, perhaps, a small opium pipe, but rejected that, since opium had its own war, and am seriously considering the poppyseed bagel.

  2. The United States is safe from a significant controversy because most Americans couldn't explain what the poppy stands for. The only thing about which Americans know less than history is geography and who could possibly be expected to know anything about Alsace-Lorraine.

    The only small, very small, excuse Americans have regarding their lack of knowledge about World War I is that the US got into it very late. If the sinking of the Lusitania hadn't happened, the US might not have gotten involved at all.

    Trench warfare and mustard gas were so devastating mentally, emotionally, and physically that neither side used it in WW II, the conflict that shouldn't have happened because the first world war was the "war to end all wars."

    There are few soldiers left from that war and they did not have Steven Spielberg and Tom Brokaw to keep their sacrifices in the public eye. There were obvious reasons for WW II but I wonder how many soldiers understood the reason for the first war.

    In the US, holidays have been moved to the Monday closest to the actual date of the event being commemorated. The Fourth of July is sacrosanct and the various veterans' groups demanded that November 11 be honored on that date. Again, it is highly unlikely that most Americans understand the significance of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh year when the Armistice was signed.

    Pacifism is noble but sometimes the philosophy is overrun by reality.

    Thanks, Dan.

  3. "A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray," as McCartney put it in "Penny Lane." By the way, if you want an object lesson in singable lyrics, "Penny Lane" is as good as they come. Every stressed syllable of every word is on a stress note. Stephen Sondheim says that one of the shames of his long career is "West Side Story's" "A Place for Us," in which the least important word in the song is the melodically stressed one, the one-octave leap to "a" in the first line: "There's A place for us." All these years later, he still thinks of it as "the A song."

    Have I gotten off-topic?

  4. I just wrote a very long comment that mysteriously disappeared into the ether.

    I will take that as existential literary criticism of my effort and simply say that during Vietnam the far right claimed ownership of the American flag, but through efforts of such liberals as Norman Lear (television producer of "All in the Family" and founder of "The People for the American Way") the symbols of America have been reclaimed for all to use, regardless of political leanings.

    In Lear's case he outbid everyone (including conservatives) to purchase at auction one of the few copies of the Declaration of Independence (found behind a flea market painting purchased for $4), and put it out on tour for all to see.

  5. In my youth, the poppy was sold to help the Veterans, as Beth said, but my understanding was that it symbolized the blood shed by our soldiers and sailors. It is just after 11 here in the USA, and I looked at your picture of poppies, and read the poem, and got my first chill of the day. I hate the politicizing of such a moving symbol of what is, in my eyes, a tragedy for all countries, all people.

  6. Thanks everyone. Annamaria, Beth, lil, Jeff, I think you all pretty sum up the problem - the hijacking of what was once a neutral symbol of remembrance, regardless of how it came into being. In my youth selling the poppy (a plastic or paper version) raised money for veterans. Now that has been forgotten and it has turned into a symbol of how much you care, or don't care, or rather, how you're perceived to care or don't care. Which misses the whole point really. The most heartening aspect of today was when my son came home and said they observed a two minute silence at school, and he knew why - to honour those who have died in war. Then he said: 'I don't want to go fight in a war.' I dare say a few of those who were slain in the fields carpeted by poppies would mutter a 'Hear Hear' if they'd heard that. Remember, so you aren't doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Sadly there are people hellbent on repeating them.

    Tim, yes, you did go off-topic, but to a place I'd gladly follow. Most singable lyric? Now that's a subject worthy of many posts. Personally, I can never resist 'Lil Ol Wine Drinker Me.' But that's all about the pause and rhythm,...'I asked the man *dum-da-dum* behind the bar *dum-dam-dum* for a juuuwkebox...'