Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below."
Because the war to end all wars ... didn't.
Not at all the same as Tall Poppy Syndrome.
If you're watching British or Canadian TV programmes of the live variety in late October and early November, or New Zealand or Australian programmes in April, 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 I, where the poppy managed to continue growing in fields churned up by artillery fire (in fact poppies thrive in such conditions). Its significance to Remembrance Day began with the poem In Flanders Fields, by Canadian military physician John McCrae (born November 1872, died January 1918). 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, Britain, 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 I and World War II (though numbers of these are obviously decreasing, 2009 was the first year with no more veterans from WWInote ), and culminating in the 'muster', with everyone standing to attention while millions of poppy leaves (supposedly one for every person killed in active duty since 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:
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 Four newsreader Jon Snow caused quite a bit of a fuss among the media when he chose not to wear one on television. He subsequently made a public statement explaining that he receives dozens of ribbons and wristbands and the like from charitable organisations hoping that his being seen wearing them will raise awareness of his cause, but since he could not possibly wear all of them he chooses not to wear any, to avoid the appearance of favouritism. 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 Football Association), it was decided that the players should be allowed to wear poppies embroidered on black armbands. However it appears FIFA have failed to learn the lesson as the issue has recurred in 2016 with FIFA citing the same policy and predictably an uproar has begun.
Occasionally clueless companies (quite often foreign-owned and ignorant of the cultural implications) try to ban their staff from wearing the poppy as a contravention of their dresscode or uniform policies - this invariably leads to a huge backlash from the public and castigation by the media and politicians and the companies have as a rule backed down rather than deal with the negative publicity and potential boycotts.
In at least seven provinces in Canada (British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador), poppies are also plated onto veterans' licence plates.
New Zealand provides a card to pensioners as a token of their eligibility for discounted public services. Usually it depicts a kowhai (the national flower) but veterans' cards instead have the poppy.
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 that white feathers were originally handed out by pro-war campaigners as symbols of cowardice, shaming men into joining the military. The practice is most associated with World War I, but it showed up from time to time even before then — as mentioned in the novel and eventual film The Four Feathers, set during The River War — and also saw use during World War II.)
In Australia the Rats of Tobruk veterans (and only those veterans) would use specific yellow poppies, but it is a rarity these days due to most of them having passed on. There's also a purple poppy, introduced in 2007 by the charity Animal Aid, to commemorate the animal victims of war.
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).
In Ireland and Northern Ireland, the poppy is more controversial. Anywhere between 200,000 and 400,000 Irish men fought in the First World War Longer version but the violent history between the two nations makes for a rather fraught subject. In the North, the poppy is widely considered an implicitly Unionist statement of support for the British Army, notorious for killing civilians and colluding with Loyalist paramilitaries during The Troubles. Those same Loyalist paramilitaries are also known to wear the poppy to represent their own dead. The situation is a little less tense in the Republic, but the controversy remains. The Republic has its own official Day of Commemoration for all Irish war dead in July, for which poppies are not worn, and the state generally makes a gesture of some kind in November at the Dublin RBL ceremony. Instead, Republicans* will often wear the Easter Lily, that commemorates all those who died in the cause of Irish freedom * . Still, as the years have passed and the Peace Process in the North has taken hold, Ireland and Britain have made more and more gestures to each other's dead, and fostered a shared sense of the grief and sadness of war, which is what Remembrance is about, after all.
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, in memory of the The American Civil War and later conflicts) rather than Veterans' Day (which is Nov 11th, but is more a celebration of those who returned than a memorial for the dead). Many people attach them to their rear view mirrors, and some keep them there year round. And yet, every November, the question of American hockey fans watching NHL broadcasts: "What are those red circles the (mostly Canadian) coaches are wearing?"
Interestingly, in Israel, which was under the British Mandate until its foundation, red everlasting flowers are the ones that symbolise fallen soldiers and, in more recent years, victims of terrorist attacks. Ironically, despite the more intense and contemporary nature of the conflict Israel is involved in, the flower isnt actually worn, and is replaced by a sticker with a photo of a red everlasting and an appropriate caption worn just for ceremonies held in schools on Memorial Day.
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 (and fresh bodies to grow on) that allowed them to grow en masse. One could argue that for the poppy, the war meant life.
It's interesting to note that, despite eventually creating one of the most enduring symbols for the war, John McCrae was ultimately unhappy with the poem he'd scribbled while looking on his friend's grave; he tore it off of his pad and threw it aside. Another soldier, whose name is now forgotten, disagreed with McCrae's opinion and sent it to newspapers in London, where it was printed by Punch in 1915. Sadly, McCrae himself didn't come home from the war.
Notable media examples
- The final shot of Blackadder Goes Forth, after the characters go over the top into a hail of bullets is that of a field of poppies.
- The Amiga game Cannon Fodder features a poppy on the box. In a case of Dramatically Missing the Point, the game was blasted by the Daily Star tabloid for that only. It was bad enough that even Amiga Power ended up reprinting issues featuring the game's box art on their cover when the Royal British Legion decided to enter the fray.
- The Pink Floyd album The Final Cut has a photo on the back cover of a soldier with a knife in his back, holding a film canister while standing in a field of poppies.
- The Tenth Doctor wore one at the end of "The Family of Blood", showing respect to one of the characters from that two-parter who ended up surviving World War I.
- In the original novel version, the equivalent character actually served in the Red Cross rather than the army, and is wearing a white poppy.