Why I Wear A White Poppy

The White Poppy

Why do we remember the Fallen? Why do we continuously dredge up the memory of yesteryear? The countries involved in those 20th century wars are almost entirely different- if they still exist at all- and the veterans and survivors have begun to fade away. And yet, once a year, we don our poppies and traipse out into the cold to shush for a minute and remember. Why?

Because by remembering, we’re choosing to forget.

I want to make it clear first of all that I think ‘remembrance’ is important. This is about why I wear a white poppy, after all, rather than why I don’t wear any poppy. The two world wars (and most every other war there’s been) were giant, untameable beasts which claimed the lives of both innocent and guilty without any discrimination or hesitation. They consumed communities and they consumed individuals, and to risk ignoring would be to risk repeating them. And yet, as we gather around our cenotaph and our poppy wreathes, we live in a country that still has an armed force and is still, in most cases, proud of it. Knowing what we do, how can we ever be proud of war?

The cenotaph is a strange thing, a monument towards those who made the ultimate sacrifice. But what is a monument? In a lecture I attended earlier this term, I discovered it comes from the Latin word ‘monumentum,’ an abstract exemplum (an example which holds a certain rhetorical meaning) made physical. It in turn comes from the Latin word ‘moneō’ which means variously ‘I warn’ or ‘I remind.’ That’s an interesting dichotomy, I think. The cenotaph is a reminder of those who fought for our freedoms, definitely, a powerful tool towards creating reverence. But it’s more than that. It’s a warning too, of the strength of this country, of its unity in times of crisis, of its passion for the preserved memory, for the gravity we treat their sacrifice with. It’s a warning to anyone who doesn’t show enough reverence.

I also worry that it may become a reassertion of the attitudes that led to war in the first place.

Interlude on Climbing A Mountain

A bunch of tired teenagers on top of a mountain

Earlier this year on my Gold Duke of Edinburgh expedition I visited the highest war memorial in the world. It sits atop Great Gable in the Lake District and was placed there in 1924 by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club to remember the members who had died during the First World War.

It took us three hours to climb Great Gable, from our wild camp site about halfway up, but on Remembrance Sunday every year, more than just seven hiking teenagers make the pilgrimage. They travel from across the Lake District, the country, the world, to attend a minute’s silence on top of the mountain. This has been happening ever since the unveiling ceremony in 1924, when 500 people attended a ceremony that saw the flying of the Union Jack from the HMS Barham and the mountain’s first remembrance.

Speaking to a few hikers who had been to such services, I’ve heard that the silence is phenomenal. In the cold November air, the thick mist obscures a view of those who surround you, and so all you can hear is the creak of the slate beneath your feet and the chilled breathing of a thousand reverent lungs. It’s been described as deeply moving, ethereal, as a true mark of respect.

But why place the memorial on top of the mountain? Why force all those people to climb so far? I think the answer is in the inscription.

In glorious and happy memory of those who names are inscribed below. Members of this club who died for their country in the European War 1914-1918. These fells were acquired by their fellow members and by them vested in the national trust for the use and enjoyment of the people of our land for all time.

Great Gable War Memorial

Why mention that the fells were acquired by the fallen’s fellows? What does that have to do with remembrance?

Walking back down Great Gable after a minute’s silence with the memorial is strangely overwhelming. You appreciate their sacrifice, and considering the stunning beauty of the area around you, you feel all the more grateful for your access to the hills. (Or, at least, I did.) And in that moment, it made perfect sense. The hard work of climbing the mountain makes every step a consideration- it forces reverence. Meanwhile, the use and enjoyment of the hills is juxtaposed with the sacrifice to make comparison. It entangles your personal enjoyment with their sacrifice. It makes you almost glad.

End of Interlude

The danger of creating reverence and gratitude, via the use of monument and memorial, is that it in turn leads to respect. Respect is deserved in a lot of cases, but it can’t be allowed to blind us. I remember going on a school trip to Belgium a few years ago, visiting various Commonwealth graveyards. We visited one grave that belonged to Private Valentine Joe Strudwick, of the 8th Rifle Brigade. He was killed on the 14th January 1916, a month before his 16th birthday.

The Grave of Valentine Joe Strudwick

I remember at the time feeling tremendous respect for him. I was fifteen at the time, going on sixteen, and to think that he’d acted with such bravery and valour at an age where I was nervous enough about GCSEs was overwhelming. He’d had to lie about his age to join the conflict, which really shows his commitment. And in this reverence, I didn’t realise how utterly appalled I should be.

Why did I feel respect for a society where a fifteen year old boy could feel a sense of nationalism so strong he’d lie about his age to go out and kill? Why did I feel reverence for the proponents of a conflict which mercilessly killed communities? Why did I feel moved by a society that believed international disputes could better be solved via the sacrifice of the youth than sitting down and talking?

The issue we have is that the monuments are just names. They’re faceless. They’re soulless. They’re not impressions of the personalities, the lives, the first kisses, the whispers, the running jokes and the make believe that faded with the clatter of a Gatling gun or a Lee Enfield rifle. They’re announcements of the sheer number who fell ‘for us.’ They’re demands for gratitude. They’re not tombstones. They’re the rhetoric of quantification.

Those who read my earlier post about Oxford and Anthropology might recognise this symbolic approach. It’s interesting to recognise the other symbols associated with memorial. Key amongst them would be the Union Flag. It’s hard to disentangle the flag from remembrance, and yet it was the nation’s hubris that initiated its role in the wars, was it not? Through the association of that symbol with cenotaphs across the country, the act of remembrance has become patriotic. Likewise criticism or questioning has become unpatriotic, in much the same way that ‘speaking ill of the dead’ is perceived as unsympathetic and rude. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why the connection of nationalism to unquestionable militarism is a cause for concern.

The other key symbol is the red poppy, the symbol that epitomises the fallen. It grew from Flanders’ Fields, and now adorns almost every lapel in the nation- from children to pensioners, from broadcasters to priests- in an act of ‘remembrance.’ Yet, the ubiquity of the symbol robs it of its meaning. We remember not the individuals who fell but the idea of the fallen, and the nationalistic or militaristic implications it has since taken on. That lecture I attended described monuments as the institutionalisation of the record, a process where specific information is chosen to be placed on the stone in line with the agenda of the stonemason. The red poppies are a smaller, more symbolic monument but that encapsulate all of these ideas: the demands for gratitude, the nostalgic recollection, the alignment of remembrance with nationalism, but in a way that is expected, that is almost necessary within the context of our society.

I’m afraid that by committing to remembrance through a faceless symbol as something you’re expected to do rather than something you choose to do, you sacrifice your say in what is forgotten.

So enter the White Poppy. Originally sold by the Co-Operative Women’s Guild in 1933, it symbolises a commitment to peace and the remembrance of all victims of war- soldiers and civilians alike. I wear one because I believe that the best way to remember the fallen is to work towards ensuring their legacy. People fight for peace. People engage in dangerous pursuits, and sometimes die, so that others can live safely. By wearing a White Poppy, you thank those people for their sacrifice and you make a commitment, not to simply see their names and feel respect, but to create a world where we don’t need more cenotaphs, where more names won’t be carved out in stone.

It’s a promise of solemnity in a time when we all too readily tell ‘with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory the old lie.’ Not Wilfred Owen’s suggestion, but the lie even older than that: that we want to learn from the lessons of history.

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