The problem of the poppy: how people and institutions wear symbols of remembrance

I published an updated version of this post (going up to the WW1 centenary) at Balkanist in 2014.

Since 1922, the Royal British Legion (the largest veterans’ organisation in the UK) has been employing disabled veterans to make the Remembrance poppies that it sells as part of its annual charity appeal. I grew up close to the Richmond riverside, where the Poppy Factory sits close to the Royal Star and Garter Home, a hospital for wounded soldiers opened by the British Red Cross  in 1916. In a way, the Poppy Appeal was a local charity. I remember poppies as being just one of many charity appeals that my mum would encourage us to give to during street collections: Oxfam, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a charity in Kingston named after Princess Alexandra that I helped to shake tins for outside the Bentalls Centre although I have no recollection now of what it did…

My mother hates war and militarism, but usually or always donated to the Poppy Appeal, and to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund in memory of her dad – my grandfather – who had been an RAF pilot during the Second World War. (I’m using the past tense because, now that I don’t live with her, I couldn’t say whether she still wears a poppy or not.) His war experiences had effects on the family that stayed with her and will stay with her for the whole of her life. I’m not able to say what her reasons were, or what memories might have been going through her mind, when she saw the appeals’ symbols and dropped a coin into the tin. But when I think about poppy-wearing now, whatever approach I want to take has to get past those things I was able to observe about my mother: this symbol had at least some potential to accommodate many experiences, many memories, and many views on war.

Over the weekend, and especially on Sunday morning, most of my Twitter timeline was taken up with different views on wearing and displaying the Remembrance poppy. My thoughts wouldn’t fit easily into 140 characters, so I didn’t have much to say. To many people I follow, the poppy today appears as an uncritical celebration of the UK’s current wars and of a pervasive militarism that has made them possible. Some prefer to wear the white poppy, which was adopted by the Peace Pledge Union in 1933 as an explicit ‘challenge to the continuing drive to war’. The white poppy is much harder to find – in Richmond in the eighties, I’d never seen one – and is explicitly directed against the state-driven meanings that its creators identify in the red poppy:

the question lingers: if the dead are said to have ‘sacrificed’ their lives, then why weren’t the living, who came out of the same danger, being suitably honoured and cared for by the state that sent them into it? The language of Remembrance, in the light of that, looks more like propaganda than passion.

Many people on my timeline talked about friends and relatives who had been harmed by war – some who had chosen to take part and others who had no choice. A number of arguments criticised the idea of the military hero that is part of the public culture of Remembrance: does treating soldiers as heroes by virtue of their service blind us to the crimes that some commit? Do all soldiers, just by choosing to be soldiers, in fact commit a crime? Are there circumstances in which a person choosing not to fight alongside British soldiers, or indeed choosing to fight against them, could also be a hero? Some of the people making these arguments rejected the symbol of the poppy altogether. Some others of them chose to wear it anyway.

But then, when many people display the same symbol, who can tell the varying reasons for displaying it that they may have? Walking down the street, each person may have a different, unique and intimate reason for wearing it; but watching the crowd there is an impression of uniformity, that everyone is expressing belief and commitment to a common cause. The nature of that common cause is in the eye of the observer. You may see nationalism. You may see sadness. You may see imperialism. You may see pacifism. You may see political conformity. The symbol masks the differences, yet perhaps it also leaves space within a crowd for different thoughts about it.

The political anthropologist David Kertzer gives the example of a political rally in Italy in his book Ritual, Politics and Power (1988). A crowd attends, carrying symbols of the political party – in this case, banners and flags. To an observer and even to each other, the common symbols show a crowd that has gathered in support of the party’s values. The performance of togetherness is real, but it tells the observer nothing about each person’s motivation for being there or any person’s interpretation of the party’s programme. In fact, each person in the crowd may have their own understanding of what the rally is and what the party is saying. It’s the symbol that makes the group make sense when it is looked at.

So the poppy, or any similar symbol, is contradictory. On one hand, it has many different meanings, some of which contend with each other. On the other hand, whoever wears a symbol can never fully control how the symbol will be read.


The poppy I remember from the limited sphere of British public life I was aware of in the eighties kept quieter about itself than today’s poppy. Poppy Appeal advertising, in line with the general trend of charity marketing in the West, plays ever more on the emotions of the public: one poster near where I live has the slogan ‘Military families pin their hopes on you’ (which just makes me think: what about the government?) The Royal British Legion’s current slogan, ‘Shoulder to shoulder with those who serve’, evokes for me Tony Blair’s statement about UK/US relations on 9/11 and feels uncomfortably associated with contemporary wars that have had shaky public support – an unfortunate choice for an organisation whose mission has a broader historical span. And then there is the showbusiness. Isn’t there the showbusiness. The Poppy Appeal has had an official charity single for several years, and this year was also launched with a free concert in Trafalgar Square featuring Alesha Dixon and Pixie Lott (whereas the Spice Girls only read a poem when they launched the appeal in 1997). X Factor contestants and judges all wear poppies in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, and in 2008 and 2010 the show released group singles featuring all contestants to raise money for Help for Heroes, a newer charity for wounded soldiers and veterans that was founded in 2007. (Mariah Carey’s Hero and David Bowie’s Heroes, for the record.)

This level of showbusiness involvement in Remembrance feels new in Britain. The end result reminds me of Croatian showbusiness during and after the war of independence in 1991-95, when at certain points practically every professional musician participated in campaigning and commemoration under the auspices of the state broadcaster, HRT. The 1990s showbusiness calendar contained many annual pop festivals (live competitive song contests, often open-air) that producers had inherited from the Yugoslav system and repurposed. The inaugural edition of a new festival, Melodies of the Croatian Adriatic (Melodije Hrvatskog Jadrana) in 1993 was remembered by music critics for several years afterwards as an epitome of HRT’s wartime nationalism: many of the audience tickets had been distributed to Croatian soldiers who attended in uniform, and the presenter read out soldiers’ telegrams before the performance by Drazen Zecic, a singer who was himself in the Croatian Army. (The fact that Zecic won the audience vote was unsurprising.) For several years after the end of the war, the Croatian Army operated its own televised pop festival in which all contestants had to be serving or former military personnel. Hardly a public commemoration, or political rally, in Croatia goes past without a free pop concert in a public square. These examples end up as my reference point when I think about the ‘poppyfication’ of entertainment in the UK – not as a way of presenting this politicisation of entertainment as non-British, but as a reminder to think in a broader way about how politics, television and popular music are connected.

There have always been connections between Britain’s modern popular music industry and the military: musicians can be hired to perform at military bases in the UK and abroad (Katherine Jenkins, the latest musician to be termed ‘Forces’ sweetheart’ in the press, is probably the highest-profile musician to regularly play for troops in Afghanistan), and will earn royalties if their songs are played on the Forces broadcaster, BFBS. What’s new – or rather, what’s revived – is the extent to which war and the military are referenced in the music they make and the promotional texts written about them, particularly when musicians have personal associations with the British military.

When James Blunt released his first album in 2004, his Army service as a junior officer in Kosovo was a curiosity, explaining one of his album tracks but not structuring his career as a whole. In contrast, the careers of newer musicians with military backgrounds are explicitly military-themed: the music of the Military Wives choir, formed by a BBC project in 2011, is rooted entirely in the members’ experiences as the wives of deployed troops.

The choir has been heavily involved in commemorative events such as the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance, and performed at the send-off of a group of Royal Marines taking part in a fundraising march. There’s ample room to read this as an example of the militarisation of everyday life, which feeds on very engrained (and heteronormative) concepts of what it means to be a soldier and a soldier’s spouse. Yet this isn’t the only perspective from which the convergence of entertainment and commemoration has been criticised this year. During the Festival of Remembrance, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Richard Kemp, grumpily expressed the view that light music was not appropriate for a solemn occasion:

Part of the Festival of Remembrance this year was Jonjo Kerr, a member of the Yorkshire Regiment who reached the X Factor finals in 2011 and deployed to Afghanistan with his company earlier this year, but not before recording a duet with the Military Wives, who accompanied his performance at the Royal Albert Hall.

The nucleus of the entertainment/military complex in the UK seems to be X Factor and the complex of producers around it. Gary Barlow, this year’s chief judge in the absence of Simon Cowell, also co-ordinated the official song for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, featuring the ‘Commonwealth Band’ of musical theatre stars and the Military Wives again. Although this set of activities is of obvious use to the state, the military, the monarchy, and the non-state organisations that work in support of them, its origins are with a privately-owned television station, ITV, rather than with the public BBC. There’s more that could probably said about the implications of this network for thinking about the relationship between popular music, politics and the state.

What does this have to do with wearing a poppy?

The thoughts and memories about wearing a poppy that I began this post with have to do with people wearing them. Increasingly, though, it feels as if institutions wear them too. And this is very different territory. After the launch of the Poppy Appeal, a season that itself seems to get longer every year, politicians and broadcast personalities wear poppies on every public appearance, as if they’ll be taken to task for not doing so – and, with the Daily Mail around, they probably will be. The sentiment is summed up in this billboard from the Royal British Legion, which has been towering over a nearby parade of shops for several weeks: a poppyless suit lapel with the slogan ‘Something missing?’

Even if this coerciveness was always inherent in the Poppy Appeal, as one line of pacifist criticism suggests, the explicitness of coercion in this image is new. In me, it induces a level of discomfort that I haven’t felt about this symbol before. I think that I’ve bought a poppy in most recent years, and worn it or not worn it depending on whether it will stay on my coat. At least, I haven’t made the conscious decision not to buy one; until this year, when on thinking about it I decided not to.

This doesn’t mean that I may never buy one again, or that I’d argue that somebody who bought one this year shouldn’t have. It’s more to do with what it means to make a choice. If I buy and wear a poppy every year, there’s a point at which it stops being a choice that I review each year, and becomes more of a personal tradition. I do have items I wear every day without thinking any more about why I wear them, but none of them are symbols of a collective identity or a public appeal.  When something has as much meaning attached as a Remembrance poppy, I want to have thought deeply about why I’ve chosen to wear it, and for the choice to wear it to mean anything, I also have to be able to conceive of the choice not to. This year it felt like time for me to choose not to.

Yesterday evening, Kent Police announced that they had arrested a man for posting an image of a burning paper poppy on Facebook. I’d planned this post before I heard about it, but the news (the latest in a growing number of arrests for ‘malicious telecommunications’ using Facebook or Twitter) increases my discomfort at the coerciveness of the contemporary poppy even further. Is the poppy now so sacred and unquestionable that depicting its burning on a social network must be considered a crime? If so, that too must feed into my choices in future years about whether or not to display one, as it will feed into the choices of other people’s. And sacred symbols are not really something I like to display.

The more the meaning of the poppy is fixed (and I recognise some people believe that it has always been fixed in this way), the more it shuts down space to identify with and express other meanings, that at least until now used to be attached to it.

Remembrance Sunday is just one component of British national identity, and of some other national identities where war memory has mingled with Britain’s – in Canada, where the current government has also been accused of politicising Remembrance, or in Australia and New Zealand, where 11 November takes second place to a separate commemoration of veterans on Anzac Day. But the problem of the poppy points to a much wider question about how we use and interpret symbols of any kind: similar debates emerged, for instance, around national symbols such as the Union Flag during the London Olympics and Paralympics. These are symbols that have been created for official purposes, in support of aims with which a member of the public might or might not agree. Yet is it possible for people to use them in ways that express or communicate personal meanings that may be very different – may even contradict those official aims?

It may not always work. But I want to believe that the possibility, at least, exists. Because I also believe that the creators of culture don’t get the final say in what their creations mean to people, and that’s the only way that I can find to reconcile those beliefs.

Still. The more that institutions wear the poppy, the less room there is for individuals to choose to do so.