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"In Flanders Fields the poppies blowScarce heard amid the guns below."
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
—In Flanders Fields, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, Canadian Army
Because the war to end all wars ... didn't.
Not at all the same as Tall Poppy Syndrome.
If you're watching British, Canadian, New Zealand or Australian TV programmes of the live variety in late October and early November, expect to see people wearing fake red flowers.
This is the poppy, the Commonwealth symbol of remembrance for the war dead. The story of these comes from the Western Front of World War One, where the poppy managed to continue growing in fields churned up by artillery fire. Its significance to Remembrance Day began with Canadian military physician John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields. The Poppy Appeal is run by the Royal British Legion (think a British version of the US Veterans of Foreign Wars) in the UK, The Royal Canadian Legion in Canada and 'Returned Services League' in Australia. They are made by volunteers and are purchased for a small donation. All profit goes to their charity work.
In the UK, this culminates in Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to November 11th (the date on which the Armistice to end WWI was signed in 1918), which has a march past of veterans at The Cenotaph, the national war memorial in Whitehall, central London. It involves the laying of large wreaths of poppies, by HM the Queen, the Prime Minister and other political party leaders, and many military veterans' groups. These events are duplicated on a local scale in towns and villages across the UK, as virtually every one has a war memorial. In Australia and New Zealand, these events generally occur on ANZAC Day, the 25th of April (the date of the Gallipoli landing in 1915). In Canada it always occurs on November 11, which in most provinces is either a full statutory holiday or a half-holiday until noon.
The main event is the two-minutes silence, one minute for each World War. "The Last Post" is played by buglers (similar to "Taps" to Americans, but a different tune), and Big Ben (the great bell at the Houses of Parliament) or a local bell chimes eleven. The two-minutes silence takes place on Armistice Day, 11 November itself, as well, unless that falls on a Sunday; in recent years many shops and other public services have re-introduced the habit of stopping all activity for the silence. In Australia and Canada this is known as Remembrance Day. In the UK, television presenters generally begin wearing the poppy a few weeks beforehand and continue to wear it until Armistice Day is over, while in Australia and New Zealand they will be worn on on ANZAC day and Rememberance Day themselves. The BBC has guidelines on the topic, which shows wearing one isn't actually mandatory. However failing to wear a poppy is likely to cause complaints, as is starting to wear them too late, or too early.
The Royal British Legion "Festival of Remembrance" is televised in the UK on the preceding Saturday evening, and consists of a parade of servicemen and women from every conceivable branch of the forces into the Royal Albert Hall, often accompanying veterans of World War One and World War Two (though numbers of these are obviously decreasing, 2009 was the first year with no more veterans from WWI), and culminating in the 'muster', with everyone standing to attention while millions of poppy leaves (supposedly one for every man killed in World War One) cascade from the ceiling. It may sound cheesy, but try keeping the lump out of your throat while watching it.
Even if you manage to, the solemn reading of the other key piece of Great War poetry, a verse from Laurence Binyon's For the Fallen, will knock you for six when used to break the silence:
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."
The poppy is pretty much sacred – but not pompously so: for example, the idea that one is expected always to wear it on the left, over one's heart, is not supported by the Royal British Legion, which manages the Poppy Appeal: it states simply that there is no right or wrong, "other than to wear it with pride". Serving members of the armed forces often wear the poppy on their berets (or slouch-hats) underneath their cap-badges. The poppy is one of the most powerful symbols in the Commonwealth and mocking it is a colossal no, as illustrated by the uproar surrounding Cannon Fodder's use of it on the box. The title screen said "This game is not in any way endorsed by the Royal British Legion".
Poppies are almost universally worn by newsreaders, presenters, even guests on TV. In 2006 Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow caused quite a bit of a fuss among the media when he chose not to wear one on television. Also in '06 people noticed when BBC newsreader Huw Edwards had his poppy "magically" appear in the middle of a broadcast of the Ten O'Clock News because it was reattached during a cut away having fallen off just before he went on air. One episode of Top Gear had Jeremy Clarkson magically lose his poppy at the start of an interview and then magically get it back. They openly admitted that it was because the interview had been filmed at a different time and he'd forgotten to wear it.
In November 2011, there was considerable controversy when FIFA banned English and Welsh national football teams from having poppies embroidered on their shirts as a mark of respect, claiming "Fifa's regulations regarding players' equipment are that they should not carry any political, religious or commercial messages". After intervention by David Cameron and Prince William (as President of the UK Football Association), it was decided that the players should be allowed to wear poppies embroidered on black armbands.
In at least six provinces in Canada (Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Newfoundland), poppies are also plated onto veterans' licence plates.
The white poppy: the white or peace poppy is a recently revived concept, originally developed by pacifist groups in the wake of WWI. Views on the matter are split. Some people oppose the wearing of white poppies, arguing that they show disrespect for veterans and the sacrifices made by the Armed Forces. Despite this, most wearers of the white poppy pair it with a traditional red one, saying that it represents the hope that such sacrifices will never need to be made again. This is sometimes a white feather instead, especially in New Zealand, where it was a symbol for a Maori Peace movement long before its use during the war. (This is rather ironic considering white feathers were originally handed out by pro-war campaigners as symbols of cowardice, shaming men into enlisting for the army in WW 1).
As you may have guessed, this is a sensitive topic for Commonwealthers of every stripe. Show respect and exercise caution. This rule even applies in Australia, that least 'proper' of countries, where ANZAC day is also notable for being the only day of the year when gambling is legal in public places (which demonstrates Aussies' way of paying respect to their war heroes).
On another note, these poppies are known in the USA, where they are commonly given as a thank you for making donations to veteran groups. (The VFW "Buddy" Poppy, with its "Wear it proudly!" tag, is particularly well-known.) There are no official rules of etiquette or holiday for wearing them, but you tend to see a lot more around Memorial Day (the last Monday in May). Many people attach them to their rear view mirrors, and some keep them there year round.
The poppy normally doesn't grow in large numbers in Flanders. When you go visit the graves or monuments of north-west Europe or just drive through the area, you'll notice it's mostly trees and grass. It was the specific conditions in the newly disturbed ground of the battlefield that allowed them to grow en masse. One could argue that for the poppy, the war meant life.
- ↑ Harry Patch, the last surviving veteran who saw action on the Western Front died in July 2009, meaning that the trenches have vanished from living memory. The other remaining veteran, Henry Allingham, died one week before