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Showing remembrance: Should people feel obliged to wear a poppy?

This year, with the centenary of the First World War, the theme of remembrance is more prevalent than perhaps it has ever been since the end of that conflict. And, in particular, people have been talking about wearing poppies – a symbol of remembrance – and debating whether there should be a requirement for people, particularly those in the public eye, to sport them.

Why do people wear poppies?

Poppies grow wild in many of the First World War battlefields of northern France and Belgium. In 1921, the Royal British Legion adopted it as their symbol of remembrance for Remembrance Day, inspired by the Donald McCrae poem In Flanders Fields. Donald McCrae was a Canadian physician who died during the conflict – albeit of pneumonia, rather than any battle wounds. His poem was composed in 1915 after witnessing the flowers growing on the graves of those who had died during the second battle of Ypres.

The poppies were originally adopted as a remembrance symbol by American academic Moina Michael, who wrote a poem in response to McCrae’s called We Shall Keep the Faith, and vowed to wear a poppy to commemorate those who served in the war.

More than 40 million remembrance poppies are now made by the Royal British Legion each year, and it is the main way that the charity – which, in addition to its remembrance duties, helps serving members of the Armed Forces, as well as veterans, their families and dependants – raises money.

How else do people commemorate the war?

As well as the red poppy, people can also choose to wear white poppies or purple poppies. The white poppy is intended to commemorate those who gave their lives, while also signifying the wearer’s pacifistic beliefs. The purple poppy is for those who wish to remember animals who served and died in the war – these include dogs, birds and horses. Neither are made or endorsed by the Royal British Legion.

However, other people choose not to display any symbol during Remembrance Day.

Why do some people not want to wear poppies?

Some argue that the red poppy has become politicised and is used to glorify or justify the decision to go to war. Harry Leslie Smith, a veteran of the second world war, explained in The Guardian that he would no longer wear the poppy for that reason, writing: “I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy.”

Others make the case that the poppies have become no more than the equivalent of a fashion accessory. A recent piece in The Telegraph, highlighting £150 silk scarves and £79.99 cufflinks – made from artillery shells recovered from the battlefields – asks: “Is poppy chic going too far?”

Many have pointed out that wearing a poppy – or not wearing one – is not necessarily synonymous with respect or gratitude for the service of the Armed Forces. When the newsreader Jon Snow was criticised in 2006 for not wearing a poppy, he responded in a blogpost: “I do not believe in wearing anything that represents any kind of statement. I respect our Armed Forces, the sacrifice and the loss, and like others I remember them on Remembrance Sunday. That's the way it is.”

His view is similar to that of ITV London presenter Charlene White, who faced a similar backlash to her decision not to wear a poppy. She writes in a blog: “I support and am patron of a number of charities and I am uncomfortable with giving one of those charities more on-screen time than others. I prefer to be neutral and impartial on-screen so that one of those charities doesn’t feel less favoured than another.”

However, not everyone supports this view. Harry Puttick, 85, a veteran who is now a Chelsea Pensioner, said this week of television presenters that refused to wear a poppy: “They should be sacked. It’s a mark of disrespect.”

Questions for debate and discussion

  • Do you wear a poppy? Why/why not?
  • Why do you think it is important to people like Harry Puttick that others wear poppies?
  • How else can people commemorate those who have died in war?
  • What other symbols can you think of that people wear to show their support for different causes?

Resources from TES

First World War teaching resources

Find lesson plans, worksheets and assembly ideas around the themes of the First World War and remembrance in this TES collection.

Poppies and remembrance

This PowerPoint presentation includes facts about Remembrance Day, Flanders Field and the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation at the Tower of London.

Something to Think About: Why poppies?

An audio resource from BBCSchoolRadio for Key Stage 1 pupils, focusing on poppies and remembrance.

Remembrance Day PowerPoint

This resource contains a number of pictures to stimulate discussion, along with links to video, as well as a concluding poem for reflection.

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