The White Poppy symbolises the belief that there are better ways to resolve conflicts than killing strangers. Our work, primarily educational, draws attention to many of our social values and habits which make continuing violence a likely outcome.
From economic reliance on arms sales (Britain is the world second largest arms exporter) to maintaining manifestly useless nuclear weapons Britain contributes significantly to international instability. The outcome of the recent military adventures highlights their ineffectiveness in today's complex world.
Now 89 years after the end of the ‘war to end all wars’ we still have a long way to go to put an end to a social institution, which in the last decade alone killed over 10 million children.


December 2006

EACH year in the days before Remembrance Day something occurs which surprises us even though it ought not to. School students being told to remove their white poppy, for example, is a more or less yearly occurrence, but still somehow comes as a ‘surprise’.

The surprise this year, however, was novel and totally unexpected. It arrived in an envelope, in the form of a legal threat. The Royal Canadian Legion was demanding that we stop making white poppies available in Canada, or else. That was the gist, though expressed in more formal language. According to the RCL’s legal representatives, the white poppy infringes the Legion’s poppy trademark. We have sent a lengthy reply.

in the shadow of world war one
In Canada, as in the two other white commonwealth countries (Australia and New Zealand), red poppies are sold in the weeks before Remembrance Day. But in all three countries the red poppy and its promoters have made much fewer inroads into public life than they have in Britain. The British Legion has built a considerable empire as the self-styled ‘custodian of Remembrance’. It sells everything from insurance (home, pets, travel, car) and credit cards to security systems. All these and more can be purchased from ‘Poppy Direct’.

The Canadian Legion’s 68-page catalogue suggests a very different promotional strategy. It is packed full of the kind of items that feature in many charity catalogues. The essential difference is that a red poppy features on most items – which can be as varied as serviettes and Christmas ornaments, cuddly poppy puppies for the young and leather suspenders with a logo for older citizens (no, no! – that’s braces in British English). More significant, perhaps, is the seamless blending of the red poppy and the maple leaf, Canada’s national symbol. Let’s hope Gordon Brown hasn’t noticed!

For Canadians (as for New Zealanders and Australians) their country’s ‘origin’ was in the bloodbaths of World War One. At the award ceremony last November, the Dominion President of the Royal Canadian Legion, Jack Frost, said: ‘As we approach the 90th anniversary of the Battle for Vimy Ridge, which saw the birth of this nation, it is only fitting that an accomplished Canadian military leader, from the current conflict in Afghanistan, be formally recognized for the ongoing successes in that theatre.’

It is not surprising that politicians, and to some extent the military, sentimentalise these grim events, which, after all, seem to help to justify war in the minds of some of the public. But it is desperately sad and problematic that many people, especially non-participants, also find meaning and a sense of their identity in celebrating those disasters.

After a generation during which Canada’s international relations rested on soft power and multilateralism, a more gung-ho Canada is emerging. Under Trudeau it sent its troops as peacekeepers; today Prime Minister Harper and military leaders asked to fight in a danger zone, and Canadian troops have now already suffered 39 fatalities in Afghanistan.

Not all Canadians are keen on such changes. Some have been buying white poppies for several years. It was the enthusiastic promotion of white poppies by Women in Black and Earth's General Store in Edmonton that caught the Canadian Legion’s eye. The threat of legal action against Earth's General Store brought the issue of white poppies to a much wider Canadian audience. We are kept busy here in Britain, in the week before Remembrance, with press, radio and TV interviews; and transatlantic ones are a welcome development. Following the stories in the Canadian media, demand for white poppies both in and from Canada increased, along with messages of support and offers to help with distribution over there.
The other ‘surprise’ came in the midst of a mild furore about the ‘unchristian’ red poppy. A couple of days before Armistice Day, Jonathan Bartley, director of Ekklesia ( a Christian lobby group), said that red poppies implied redemption through war, but Christianity seeks redemption through non-violence. ‘White poppies were created to symbolise peace,’ he said. The group’s press release and subsequent interview caused much excitement on Radio 4’s Today programme – and prompted inevitable disagreement from the British Legion: they described the red poppy as a symbol to help us ‘reflect on the human cost of war’. ‘The red poppy suggests the idea that our soldiers died for freedom but that's not a value-free position,’ added Jonathan Bartley. One suspects that the British Legion found such criticism coming from Christians a little more uncomfortable than that from the secular PPU.

Our best – and unexpected – headline a few days before Remembrance Day appeared across three columns of the Evening Standard, above a letter from the PPU which concluded: ‘Today British soldiers are doing their “duty” in a war of questionable legality. They are not conscripts but willing participants. We may not wish them harm, but should we wish them well?’ The headline: ‘Our duty is to disarm’ may not be quite how we would put it, as the word ‘duty’ has become a little tarnished; but it echoes the PPU’s big black remembrance banner. We used to dust it down every Remembrance Day and carry it at the head of the walk to the cenotaph in Whitehall to lay a wreath of white poppies. Its ‘Remember and Disarm’ in bold white letters might have been a sentiment more appreciated by the Armistice Day attenders in the early 1920s than by today’s tourists and faintly inebriated ex-military – or indeed by the British Legion.

hearts and minds
What was originally a meaningful ceremony of consolation for tens of thousands of bereaved quickly turned into a justification of a futile war, and every soldier became a hero. Those heroes, and the millions more who have died in war since then, continued to be ‘honoured’ and ‘remembered’. But what does that mean? What is being honoured and remembered? What was once a language of conciliation has become a language of obfuscation. When the victims and perpetrators merge into a meaningless whole, as in ‘to honour those who have died in war’, we know we are in fantasy-land. People go to war for many reasons – not all of them worthy of respect, let alone honour. Tens of thousands rushed to the recruiting offices in 1914 for the adventure that the war might offer. Tens of thousands more, who did not want to go to war, were conscripted and signed up to kill – not to die. Why should we honour reckless or foolish adventurers because they were killed in a futile war? Why should we honour those who acquiesced with the state’s order to go and kill – that is, to perform acts that are contrary to most moral codes and laws?

‘Tell them of us and say “For your tomorrow we gave our today”.’ That inscription on a memorial to World War Two’s Burma campaign is how the British Legion likes us to think of the war dead. It’s a neat piece of sleight of hand, aiming to make us grateful, even a little uneasy. It certainly deflects deeper questions about the ‘values’ of war. It is this guilt-inducing meaning that the red poppy attaches to itself; and this is largely why so few dare to criticise its pernicious values. No one has died in war for me – or for you.

The power of the white poppy lies in its questioning of the dominant – and fundamentally dishonest – view of war. More than that, it carries the hopes and demands of the mothers, wives, daughters and girlfriends of the men who for whatever reason and in whatever way were diminished by their participation in war. Their hope was that we would find less brutal social institutions to solve problems and resolve conflict. It remains for us to fulfil the wish.

Peace Pledge Union, 1 Peace Passage, London N7 0BT. Tel +44 (0)20 7424 9444   contact     |   where to find us