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


hough the Great War was called 'the war to end all war', it was not. The terms of its peace treaty were harsh: causes of new wars were blindly enshrined in it. Countries began rebuilding their armies - using men who had been children in 1914 and whose fathers were among the war dead. New weapons factories started work and making profits for their owners. People who wanted peace knew that all this was happening, and that lessons had not been learned from the past.

The Women's Co-operative Guild, founded in 1883, began its life preoccupied with the problems and issues of home and family, but by 1914 attention had turned to the bigger picture: the Guild's Congress declared that 'civilised nations should never again resort to the terrible and ineffectual method of war for the settlement of international disputes'. By the end of the war the guildswomen had learned first hand the extent to which war could profoundly affect and harm their lives. Many of them were the wives, mothers and sisters of men who had been killed. They embarked on an active campaign for peace.

Guild members with wreath of white poppies 1934

By 1933 they were searching for a symbol which could be worn by guildswomen who wanted to show publicly that they were against war and for nonviolence. Someone came up with the idea of a white poppy. Workers from the Co-operative Wholesale Society began making the poppies almost at once. Money from selling them, after the production costs had been paid for, was sent to help war-resisters and conscientious objectors in Europe.

The wearing of a white poppy on Armistice Day became a focus for the peace movement, and the Peace Pledge Union took it up in 1936 as 'a definite pledge to peace that war must not happen again'. In 1938 'Alternative Remembrance' events began: a pacifist religious service was held in London's Regent's Park, followed by a march to Westminster and the laying of a wreath of white poppies at the Cenotaph. 85,000 white poppies, by then an acknowledged symbol of peace, were sold that year. Many people wore them alone, others wore a red poppy as well.

When an ex-serviceman broke the Armistice Silence at the Cenotaph in 1937, with his loud cry of protest against the hypocrisy of praying for peace while preparing for war, he had made clear what everyone was beginning to realise: the people who shared the Silence were not of one mind about what Remembrance meant.

The Second World War began in September 1939. That November the Armistice Day Silence was cancelled.


During the Second World War religious services for Remembrance continued on the Sunday closest to November 11. In 1945, the government found it hard to decide which day was appropriate for remembering the British dead from what were now two world wars. Ideas suggested but not agreed included D-Day, VE Day, the anniversary of the day war broke out, the date Magna Carta was signed, and American Independence Day. Or should it be November 11 again? As it happened, in 1945 November 11 was a Sunday, and so the long-established religious services and the revived secular ceremonies took place on the same day. From then on, as the easiest option, it was settled that Remembrance Day should fall on the second Sunday in November, with the Silence and an 'act of worship' enshrined in the public proceedings - the Cenotaph service being broadcast live. At the end of the 20th century the British Legion had some success in reviving the Silence on Armistice Day as well.

Four months before the war began a Guild mother had written a letter to the prime minister Neville Chamberlain. In it she told him that she hadn't raised her 20-year-old son to be a good citizen 'for you to claim him now to be a cog in the wheels of a military machine which threatens mankind...I hope I have behind me all the mothers of sons, and the mothers of sons who have already made the supreme sacrifice to show us that war is not the way to transform the world.'

The white poppy was and is a symbol of grief for all people of all nationalities, armed forces and civilians alike, who are victims of war. It has not always been understood. Some people wearing a white poppy have been accused of disrespect to the war dead; they have been shouted at and abused. Some people have been sacked from their jobs for wearing white poppies, and white poppy wreaths have been removed from war memorials and trampled on. The British Legion strongly objected to the white poppy; for them the red poppy (though associated only with soldiers, and only the British) was a peace symbol, and they felt the white one was in some way competing with it. Some people associated the white poppy with left-wing politics. Many associated it with conscientious objection and the 'conchies' who had been thought of 'cowards and shirkers' in the Great War. There were times when it took strength of mind to go out with a white poppy pinned to one's jacket.

The Second World War was, like the First, a new kind of war. Weapons and machinery were embarking on the hi-tech age, and for the first time civilians as well as soldiers were made their targets. In this war there were up to 17 million military deaths. Up to 30 million civilians were killed, and millions more became refugees. Since 1945 war of some kind has been taking place somewhere in the world, continually, bringing the total of war-related deaths in the 20th century to over 100 million. There was also the Cold War, and the nuclear risks which it increased. The Peace Pledge Union's White Poppy Appeal slogan in the 1990s got it right: 'War cannot create peace'. The will and a way had to be found to abolish war altogether.

On the afternoon of Remembrance Sunday in 1980, a silent procession walked from Trafalgar Square to the Cenotaph and laid a wreath of white poppies. This was the inscription on the wreath:
For all those who have died or are dying in wars
For all those who have died or are dying as resources to feed or house them have gone to war preparations
For all those who will die until we learn to live in peace
When shall we ever learn?
The silent walk became an annual event, and the revived sale of white poppies grew. In 1986 a popular bishop reminded people that the white poppy wasn't a mark of disrespect for dead soldiers: 'there is space for red and white to bloom side by side'. The bishop's MP asked a question about the white poppy in Parliament; in response prime minister Margaret Thatcher forcefully expressed her 'deep distaste' for them. Suddenly the white poppy was a talking point, hotly debated in the press, on radio and television, in pubs and sitting rooms. On Remembrance Day that year veteran soldiers shouted abuse at the 200 anti-war demonstrators laying the white poppy wreath at the Cenotaph.

In recent years the number of white poppies sold by the Peace Pledge Union has continued to grow. Many are sold in schools side by side with red ones. One year, a boy chose a white poppy and wore it proudly to his Remembrance Sunday church Scouts parade - only to be ordered by the scoutmaster to remove it: 'it's not an appropriate symbol for Remembrance Day'!. The scoutmaster gave the boy a red poppy to wear instead. The boy quietly put the white poppy on again as soon as he left the church.


The white poppy is a symbol worn by people who want 'no more war'. No-one knows why a white poppy was chosen: it certainly wasn't intended to compete with the red one, only to be different from it. No one knows why, having chosen the poppy, white was the colour selected. What do you think about it? What does the white colour suggest to you? Would another colour be better, and if so, why? What power and associations do different colours have for you?

Some people wear red poppies at Remembrance, some wear white poppies, some wear both together, and some wear none at all. What do you think might be the differences between these people? Imagine what it might be like to be one of each, and explain each choice from each different point of view. You may decide that the differences don't matter; you may think they matter a little, or even a lot. What things and events might unite all these people? (They are all human beings, for a start!)

Sometimes people are made to feel that they are outsiders if they don't wear a red poppy, or if they choose a white one instead. People often do things simply because they want to be like other people and accepted by them. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to be different. We can admire people who are brave, and we can sympathise with the ones who aren't. But sometimes there are things that have to be said, and the courage has to be found to say them. One thing that has to be said is that war and fighting don't actually protect people, but make life more dangerous than it needs to be. (Can you say that yourself?) What other things can you think of that are important and true?

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