To bloom side by side: the red and the white poppy

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There’s a fair bit of military floating around my family. On dad’s side, a great-grandfather who was evacuated from Dunkirk, served in the 7th Armoured Division in Africa — the ‘desert rats’ — and ended the war in Italy, and another who escorted convoys with the Royal Navy. On mum’s, a grandfather in the US Air Force. Also, a great-grandfather in the Wehrmacht – he had to walk back to Germany from Russia when the war ended. Fighting the Soviets in Stalingrad, he was apparently more afraid of falling into a river than of the Russians. Like many of his generation, he couldn’t swim.

Every year, as November comes along, all the usual controversies surrounding our peculiar Commonwealth remembrance tradition of the red poppy flare up. Endless op-eds are written about what the poppy does and does not represent now, what it did and didn’t represent in the past, and why the author has chosen to wear none or wear a necklace of forty this year.

On occasion, mention will be made of the white poppy campaign. The alternative campaign, founded by the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1933 (making it only twelve years the junior of the Royal British Legion’s red poppy campaign of 1921) and now run by the Peace Pledge Union, states that white poppies recall all victims of all wars, including victims of wars that are still being fought. This includes people of all nationalities. It includes both civilians and members of armed forces. Meanwhile, the Legion plainly state that they advocate a specific type of Remembrance connected to the British Armed Forces, those who were killed, those who fought with them and alongside them.

Thankfully, all those aforementioned grandparents and great-grandparents returned to their respective countries in one piece. Millions of others didn’t. With such a mongrel makeup, with ancestors having served across so many nation’s armies, and with some of those soldiers having found themselves on opposing sides of the greatest war in history, how could I countenance wearing merely the red poppy in remembrance of them and their comrades?

Years ago, I went on a school trip to Belgium and the battlefields of the Great War. We stayed in Ypres, explored the Somme and visited countless cemeteries and memorials – Tyne Cot, the Menin Gate, Langemark. It’s this final one that has stuck with me the most since. One of only four German war cemeteries in Belgium, it houses the remains of over 44,000 German soldiers. However, unlike somewhere like Tyne Cot where the graves line up in endless rows of white that stretch on towards the horizon and beat into you the scale of the brutality via sheer scale, Langemark houses a series of mass graves marked with small, subdued basalt plaques on the ground. The largest of these contains just under 25,000 individual soldiers’ remains.

German remembrance is far more subdued than British, and the Americans throw a curveball completely and celebrate living veterans on November 11th with Veterans Day, saving remembrance of the dead for Memorial Day on May 30th. It’s important to remember that every country that fought in either world war has their own unique way of remembering the dead, just as it’s easy to forget that the ‘red poppy on the left breast with the leaf at 11 o’clock’ protocol is nothing more than our traditional twist on it, rather than having been passed down to us carved into stone tablets as some seem to think. Indeed, the Legion themselves say there is no right or wrong way to wear a poppy. It is a matter of personal choice whether an individual chooses to wear a poppy and also how they choose to wear it.

So I shall be wearing a red poppy this month – the work of the Legion to support Britain’s veterans is both noble and (unfortunately) necessary, and I’m happy to support it. Besides it (although possibly not this year, as the PPU seem to have been overwhelmed by demand and run out of stock – a donation will have to suffice, I fear) I will have a white poppy. One as a symbol of remembrance for past conflicts and those lives, Commonwealth or otherwise, lost in them – the other as a symbol of hope for a future of without such conflicts. A hope that, in defiance of In Flanders Fields, we can one day move beyond these bloody quarrels.

Moina Michael’s poem We Shall Keep the Faith, written in response to In Flanders Fields, started the red poppy movement and ends with the lines Fear not that ye have died for naught;/We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought/In Flanders Fields. The white poppy is a pledge to teach the right lesson.

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