In Armistice’s 100th Year, Why the ‘White Poppy'?

In Armistice’s 100th Year, Why the ‘White Poppy'?
War veterans and members of the Memorable Order Of the Tin Hat (MOTH) gather to take part in a Sunset Parade in Durban, on November 11, 2018. (Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP) (Photo credit should read RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Carol Gould

LONDON—This year has been a special remembrance one for Britain and mainland Europe, as well as for Commonwealth nations around the globe.

It represents the centenary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I, “the war to end all wars.” Millions died in the “Great War.” November is Remembrance Month, and commemoration events are carrying on into December.

What has given me cause for concern—okay, call it anger—is the growing force of young people and even anti-war older folks wanting to dilute these ceremonies and the traditional wearing of the red poppy into a pacifist movement. In recent weeks, I have been at the receiving end of lectures from Britons who feel it is time we wore poppies to show our thanks not just for our own war dead but to remember Japanese, German, and Axis powers.

Several people with whom I have come into contact in recent weeks say they will wear a “white poppy” because they object to “taking sides.” Their rationale? Wearing a red poppy connotes support for “the Western war machine.” Were the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire not also “war machines?”

I ask them what sort of world they would be inhabiting if our “war machine” had failed and had Hitler and his allies won, creating a horrific Thousand-Year Reich.

I remember my mother and aunt, both of whom served in the U.S. Army in World War II, telling me that they were being prepared for a land invasion of Japan in 1945, an endeavor that would have seen hundreds of thousands of men and women wiped out over decades of unending destruction. The white-poppy wearers tell me that their campaign to remember enemy dead includes the objection to the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yes, the mass casualties of civilians in Japan and Germany were tragic. Indeed, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara acknowledged that had the Allies lost World War II, he and his commander on the Japanese front, Gen. Curtis LeMay, could have been charged with war crimes for the carpet-bombing of towns and cities composed of wooden structures.

The dropping of nuclear devices in August 1945, however, ended the war. The subsequent U.S. occupation of Japan resulted in the rebuilding of a prosperous, innovative, and peaceful country that, to this day, eschews notions of imperial domination.

The movement to wear white poppies, Peace Pledge Union, came into being in 1933, founded by well-meaning British women who had lost husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers in World War I. They fervently sought an end to armed conflict.

On their website, the organization writes: “Many of the activities around Remembrance Day are detached from any meaningful attempt to learn the lessons of war. Arms companies instruct their staff to pause work for the two minutes’ silence.” Oh, come on! Masses of citizens that aren’t involved in arms dealing also pause their work.

Red Poppy Tradition

The bright-red poppy is a tradition started in the United States and Canada after the Armistice. It was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae, who served in the battle of Ypres. U.S. academic Moina Michael devised red silk poppies, which were brought to England by a French woman, Anna Guerin. The popularity of this spread like wildfire, and in its first year, 1921, the Royal British Legion sold nine million, raising a whopping 106,000 pounds ($135,000).

The wearing of a red poppy pin from mid-October each year has been perpetuated ever since throughout the Commonwealth.

This year, the resistance by so many to wearing the traditional red poppy has begun to alarm me. I have had heated confrontations with British friends who think red poppy-wearers are “condoning the warmonger mentality.” They tell me there is nothing wrong with pausing to remember our enemies. Yes, German and Japanese mothers wept as ours did, but I can’t stretch my mourning to those who reveled in mass genocide and torture, or to ISIS executioners.

Likewise, I did a research project 13 years ago and discovered that many in central London’s Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant population not only didn’t wear poppies but became very agitated when I asked why. They didn’t feel that the commemoration of British war dead had anything to do with them.

At the time, I wrote in my diary, “If I lived in Damascus and there was an annual tradition of some sort similar to Poppy Day, I would show my respect and join in.”

On the other side of the coin: In 2006, Ugandan-born UK commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown publicly expressed her shame at having refused to wear a poppy in 2005. In the intervening year, she had met ethnic minority war veterans who were particularly hurt by her impetuous attitude. (She had also returned her MBE to protest the war policy of the British government. As an immigrant myself, I would drop dead with pride to be awarded any honor by the Queen.)

In 2006, Alibhai-Brown asserted she would thenceforward wear a red poppy and set aside her anti-war sentiments, which she now felt were secondary to the tribute that the nation must pay to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Now, in 2018, to the dismay of millions—including me—St. John Ambulance, the British first-aid organization, is for the first time in its long history allowing its staff to wear white poppies.

In conclusion, all I know is that I do not wish to commemorate the Nazi SS or brutal masters of torture, but that I do wish to remember the millions of men and women who “gave up their tomorrow for our today.”

Philadelphia-born Carol Gould is a UK-based BBC TV and LBC Radio political commentator. She is the author of “Don’t Tread on Me: Anti-Americanism Abroad” and “Spitfire Girls.”
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.