I wear a red poppy, but I wear a white one too. One of the defining features of modern wars is the vast numbers of civilians who are killed as well. Over 140,000 civilians are estimated to have died in the Iraq war or its aftermath. The white poppy is one way of remembering them. From those thousands in Iraq to the Londoners who died in the blitz and the citizens of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the white poppy speaks for them. When the red wreaths are laid at the cenotaph and at numerous memorials around the country, would a wreath of white poppies be out of place? Should we remember all of the dead, or only those in uniforms?
I feel that the dead from the numerous conflicts and wars need to be remembered. The reasons why we remember them will vary. For some, it is the loss of relatives or friends. For others, it is the result of unpopular political decisions. Whatever the reason, the dead should not be forgotten.
The white poppy was first introduced by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1933 and is now sold by the Peace Pledge Union. Their motto is “War is a crime against humanity. I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war.”
That belief; that we should not only remember the dead but also think about the reasons they died, has always been surrounded by controversy. Some women lost their jobs in the 1930s for wearing the white poppy, on the basis that their campaign undermined those who were killed in service.
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher expressed her distaste for the white poppy. I hope Theresa May and other senior politicians will refrain from being equally divisive. If not wearing a red poppy or wearing a white one is “making a statement”, then why is a red poppy not a statement? Why have statements become undesirable? Surely the point of Remembrance Day is to give us a collective space to think about it all?
The Royal British Legion works extremely hard to ensure that the families of people in the services are supported, but seems fairly relaxed and plays down the controversy. They say on their website: “We have no objection to white poppies, or any group expressing their views. We see no conflict in wearing the red poppy alongside the white poppy.”
Remembrance Day is about joining together to respect the dead and we each have our own memories when we do so. Personally, I respect the dead by taking a moment to think, to question and to act according to my conscience. I hope that everyone else is given the chance to do the same.
I am speaking at the Imperial War Museum on November 4th. Tickets here
White poppies can be bought here
Red poppies will hopefully be available on your local high street.