The poppy’s symbolic ties to Remembrance Day stem from the First World War, and the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal now raises millions
From humble beginnings, the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal has gone on to raise hundreds of millions of pounds for charity, and the flower has inspired artwork on an epic scale.
The poppy’s origins as a symbol of remembrance lie in the First World War poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian officer John McCrae, first published in December 1915.
Its opening lines refer to how the flowers grew from the graves of soldiers across Western Europe during the conflict:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row
The practice quickly spread to the UK, where the first ever Poppy Day was held on 11 November, 1921, the third anniversary of Armistice Day.
It was adopted as a symbol by the newly-formed Royal British Legion, a charity established to provide support for members and veterans of the British Armed Forces and their families.
Their first Poppy Appeal in 1921 raised £106,000 – according to the charity’s annual accounts, the 2016 campaign made £49.2 million.
The appeal has grown from manufacturing poppies in a room above a shop in Bermondsey, South London to a facility in Richmond where 50 ex-servicemen and women work all year round producing tens of millions of the symbolic flowers.
In 2014, the artwork Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red was installed in the moat of the Tower of London to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.
It consisted of 888,246 ceramic poppies, denoting each member of the British Armed Forces who lost their life during the conflict, with the final flower planted on 11 November.
Outside the UK, poppies are predominantly worn in Commonwealth nations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and are also used to a lesser extent in the US.
Whereas in England poppies have two petals and a green leaf, the Scottish versions produced by PoppyScotland have four petals and no leaf.
The Scottish charity, which merged with the Royal British Legion in 2011, explains on its website: “Apart from being botanically incorrect it would cost £15,000 to make leaves for all poppies – money we feel is better spent on veterans.
“We might be slightly biased but we think the Scottish poppy looks nicer too.”
When should you wear your poppy?
However, even when the appeal is technically over, there is nothing wrong with continuing to wear a poppy.
The RBL says: “You can wear a poppy all year round but traditionally people stop wearing a poppy after Armistice Day on 11 November or Remembrance Sunday, whichever is later.”
You can buy a full range of commemorative flowers, including badges, brooches and football club pins, from the official shop here.
The charity also organises Poppy Days in some of the UK’s major cities, fundraising events which feature a combination of veterans, Armed Forces personnel and volunteers with music, activity centres and celebrity appearances.
Is there a ‘right’ side to wear the poppy?
Some people say a poppy should be worn on the left lapel, to keep it close to your heart – it is also the side that medals are worn by the Armed forces.
The positioning of the flower’s leaf has also prompted debate, with one theory dictating that it should be at 11 o’clock, representing the Armistice being signed at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
However, the British Legion insists there is no right or wrong way, saying: “The best way to wear one is with pride.”
Why has the poppy been controversial?
Some critics have claimed that the symbolism of the poppy has become politicised over times, and that it has been used to glorify conflict.
It was for these reasons that prominent RAF veteran and author Harry Leslie Smith said he was abstaining from wearing the symbol in 2014.
He wrote in 2006: “There is a rather unpleasant breed of poppy fascism out there – ‘he damned well must wear a poppy!’.
“Well I do, in my private life, but I am not going to wear it or any other symbol on air.”
The poppy has proved a controversial issue in sport, with Republic of Ireland football international James McClean facing sustained abuse since moving to England for his refusal to wear shirts displaying the symbol.
He was born and raised in Derry, growing up on the same estate as six people killed by the British Army on Bloody Sunday in 1972.
This year’s poppy appeal began on 24 October and runs until the Armistice Day anniversary on 11 November (Getty Images)
McClean explained his decision in a West Bromwich Albion match programme in 2015: “If the poppy was simply about World War One and Two victims alone, I’d wear it without a problem.
“Because of the history where I come from in Derry, I cannot wear something that represents that.”
In 2011, Prince William and Prime Minister David Cameron condemned Fifa’s decision to refuse the England team permission to wear the poppy for a fixture against Spain.
Football’s global governing body concluded that allowing the symbol would contravene their regulations forbidding “political, religious or commercial messages”, although they eventually allowed the poppy to be shown on black armbands.
England have subsequently been fined alongside the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland teams for displaying the poppy during fixtures.
What about the white poppy?
In recent years the white poppy – a pacifist symbol of remembrance which can be worn instead of or alongside the red flower – has increased in prominence.
The pacifist white poppy has risen in prominence over recent years (Press image: Symon Hill)
The symbol commemorates victims of all wars – both combatants and civilians of all nationalities – seeking to bring to an end “the exclusion of civilians from mainstream Remembrance events”.
However, white poppies have faced opposition and controversy, with critics claiming that the symbol undermines the message of remembrance around Armistice Day.
This year, St John’s Ambulance has changed its dress code policy to allow volunteers to wear the white poppy as an alternative to the red one, while at least 30 schools have said they will offer the pacifist symbol to students.
source – inews