- 1914-1918
- story of the red poppy
- story of the white poppy
- here and now

- more about this poem


Up to 10 million soldiers were killed in the First World War. It's not known how many civilians died as well, but the estimate is 1.4 million. In 1919 the traumatised survivors of the fighting began to find their way home.

Everyone who fought in Belgium and northern France had noticed the extraordinary persistence and profusion of an apparently fragile flower: the cornfield poppy, which splashed its blood-red blooms over the fields every summer. It blooms there to this day, on the fields now returned to the farming they were meant for, and from which the bones of the dead are still collected as the farmers' ploughs uncover them.

The returning American ex-servicemen made the red poppy their emblem. It was particularly associated with a poem written by a Canadian doctor, John McRae (he was killed in battle in 1915). His poem begins:

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....

So the Americans arranged for artificial poppies to be made by women in war-ravaged northern France. The funds raised from selling the poppies were for children who had suffered because of the war.

In Britain, the weary soldiers came back from the grimness of war to find that life was hard at home too, though in a different way. Many of the men were wounded or disabled or suffering the effects of gas and shell-shock. Many were physically or mentally unable to work; many others found that there were no jobs anyway. The provision made for them by the state was less than adequate. They certainly didn't get the heroes' homecoming that they had been led to expect. So ex-servicemen's societies united in 1921 to form the British Legion. Its purpose was to provide support to ex-servicemen, especially the disabled, and their families, and it was to become one of the most successful British charities ever.

A Frenchwoman who was helping to organise the production of artificial poppies in France suggested that the British Legion might like to sell them to raise money. The British Legion approved of this idea, and ordered at least 1.5 million for November 11, 1921. They sold out almost at once. The first Poppy Appeal made £106,000, a huge sum in those days. The British Legion now decided to set up its own poppy factory, with disabled ex-servicemen making up the workforce. The Remembrance red poppy rapidly became an established part of British life. 'Poppy Day' said the Western Daily News in 1927, was 'the one flag day when every man woman and child with hardly an exception wears an emblem'.

By the end of the 20th century the British Legion were producing annually over 32 million 'lapel' poppies, 100,000 wreaths and 400,000 Remembrance crosses. In the days leading up to Remembrance these poppies can still be seen everywhere, even in the lapels of people normally discouraged (or even barred) from advertising their favourite charities - such as politicians, the police, and TV newsreaders.

But the poppy has had its problems. Some people who have chosen not to wear it have faced anger and abuse. It's also got involved with politics. In Northern Ireland, for example, it became regarded as a Protestant Loyalist symbol because of its connection with British patriotism. And a growing number of people have been concerned about the poppy's association with military power and the justification of war. Some people have wondered why, with a state welfare system, the services of the British Legion (slogan: 'Honour the dead, care for the living') are still needed; some say it's disgraceful that they were ever needed at all - though the many suffering people who have depended on help from the British Legion are profoundly grateful. (Governments have been grateful too: 'Governments cannot do everything. They cannot introduce the sympathetic touch of a voluntary organisation'!) But the question lingers: if the dead are said to have 'sacrificed' their lives, then why weren't the living, who came out of the same danger, being suitably honoured and cared for by the state that sent them into it? The language of Remembrance, in the light of that, looks more like propaganda than passion.


Activity: Collect examples from history, ancient and modern, of events which could have alerted people to future dangers but which were disregarded at the time. Collect examples of events which have made people decide to behave better. Write them down, pin them up, act them out. Collect examples of personal experiences of learning what to avoid. Talk about them, write about them, make warning posters about them.

Background thinking: Why do people find it hard to learn from the past? Is it because the present feels so different? Is it because in the present you can't always see how things are heading? Is it because remembering is actually quite hard to do? (It's been said that Remembrance Day, now that so few people are around who can remember the first one, has become 'the memory of a memory'.) It's not as if we aren't made to remember and learn: the whole of growing up is a process of learning from the past (fire burns, loud noises hurt the ears, smoke harms the eyes, rotten things smell bad and rotting things taste horrible). In our families, groups, communities and societies we can take action to avoid what damages them.

Remembrance is a good time to talk with young children about starting to create a peaceful world at their own grassroots.


Activity: Collect/paint images of flags from round the world, with some information about the countries too, and pin them up for everyone to look at. Choose a country each, and try to imagine belonging to it. How does the rest of the world look from there? Together make a list of the vices and virtues of being patriotic.
Background thinking: The British Legion's annual Festival of Remembrance (usually shown on television) features a 'muster' of representatives of the British armed forces and their auxiliaries, and displays of skill by teams of young British servicemen and servicewomen. The patriotic element is strong. Patriotism appeals to people because it gives them a sense of belonging. Patriotism can give people a cause to support, which gives them a sense of being needed. But patriotism, which is only a step away from nationalism, and just as capable of being militant, also generates hostility to and from people of other countries and races. Today survival depends on seeing ourselves as citizens not of states but of the whole planet. Our genetic history shows that all the members of our species are unusually closely related, and human societies need to learn to reflect it. This is one of the reasons why pacifists choose the white poppy, which crosses all the boundaries humans set up for themselves.

Remembrance is a good time to talk with young children about the dangers of patriotism and the need for tolerance - which includes tolerating people intolerant of them.


Activity: First make a list of countries where young children have been forced become soldiers (such as Angola, Afghanistan, Congo, Sierra Leone and Uganda) and of countries where young people can join the army straight from school; find out something about these countries and share the information. Next, draw and paint examples of the ways in which war and fighting have been made entertaining for children (war toys, games, books, cartoons, films); write letters from imaginary child soldiers in the countries listed, describing some of their experiences; pin up the drawings and the letters side by side for everyone to look at.

Background thinking: We are shocked by images of young children carrying guns, or maimed by landmine explosion, or with limbs amputated by brutal soldiers. We are shocked by the recruitment of young children into armies. We aren't shocked enough that armies start recruiting children in schools, at local festivals and sports days, museums and pleasure parks. Even when we visit the war cemeteries and see the lines of crosses stretching to the horizon, when we look more closely and see 'aged 18' so many times, we aren't shocked enough to protest against the low age of recruitment into the armed forces, where the children we have tried to protect are taught to kill. And when they are young, how much militarism creeps into their play or is already present in some toys or games?

Remembrance is a good time to talk with young children about what militarism means.


Activity: Talk, write, draw, paint, improvise a play about people working together to get something done. Discuss the different sorts of task that can be achieved, and how people of all kinds, temperaments, nationalities, races and beliefs can be brought together for a shared purpose for everyone's good. What makes working together difficult sometimes? How might these difficulties be tackled?

Background thinking: The man who first suggested the Silence said: 'Only those who have felt it can understand the overmastering effect in action and reaction of a multitude moved suddenly to one thought and purpose'. We know that mass action can be dangerous, and mob hysteria terrifying, often as much to its members as its victims. But we also know that public opinion can make changes for the good. People can choose to stand together to resist the things that can harm them, just as they stand together in the face of immediate disaster or a shared grief.

Remembrance is a good time to talk to young children about working together for everybody's good - which means talking about peace, of course.

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