Each year on the run up to the 11th November, there is a sea of red poppies but occasionally one comes across a white poppy and a fair few people look down on this flower but its association with Remembrance is almost as old as the more familiar red one. In 1926 a member of the No More War movement mooted the idea that pacifists should make and distribute their own poppy which would differ from the red one not only in colour but the centre would read ‘No More War. As such its plan was a remembrance of all victims of war, challenging militarism and a commitment to peace; whereas the red poppy would be remembering the military dead – which it remains symbolising. Despite the idea it was not developed and the Co-operative Women’s Guild were the first to sell white poppies in 1933 and then the Peace Pledge Union also begun distributing them in 1936 with wreaths being laid in 1937.
Interestingly white poppy sales rose in 2010 and in 2014 the 110,000 topped the previous sales of 80,000 in 1938.
Up the Armistice centenary there was a noticeable rise in the adoption of the white poppies as noted by the Coop News website
“According to PPU, the number of shops and other outlets known to be selling white poppies has risen by almost a third. Some Co-op Group supermarkets and Co-operative Bank branches also sell the poppies. Schools have made 70 orders for the white poppies schools pack, more then double the figure in 2017. The PPU received 34 orders for the new White Poppies for Churches pack as well.“
In the end, the Armistice resulted in a record 122,385 being sold.
“Of course we are very pleased to have distributed so many white poppies but it is the meaning behind the symbol that matters. If everyone who wears a white poppy takes action against militarism and war, and works for peace and active nonviolence, that would be a fitting memorial to the millions of civilians and combatants whose lives have been wasted in war.””
This is however not to say that the rise of the white poppy has not and continues to not have its controversy and whilst the Royal British Legion has no opinion on whether it should be red or white poppy worn, plenty of others appear to have spoken on their behalf – unofficially I’d add. As early as the 1930s some women lost their jobs for wearing them. Yet in Northern Ireland where the red poppy is associated with the British; those seeking unification can accept the white poppy with no issue. Local debates have arisen such as that between the then Bishop of Salisbury, John Baker in 1986 who when asked about the appropriateness said:
“let’s not be hurt if we see a white poppy…there is plenty of space for red and white to bloom side by side.”
This however resulted in Robert Kay the Salisbury MP disagreeing and even bringing then British PM Thatcher into the debate who said during Prime minister’s question time that she had a “deep distaste” for the symbol. This created much attraction and doubtless more adherents to the white poppy cause despite several negative articles in The Daily Star.
This debate appears not to be disappearing yet even as late as 2014, at the Aberystwyth War Memorial, white poppy wreaths were binned and in 2018 a similar report perhaps from Somerset when:
“A white poppy wreath laid at the Bath War Memorial on Remembrance Sunday has been ‘pinched’ – for the third year in a row. The wreath was laid by Bath Quakers, who had called for it to be ‘respected’ ahead of the commemoration.However, the wreath has disappeared again – and in record time. The group said it was gone within 24 hours of the ceremony, having previously taken ‘a week or so’ to vanish.”
This resulted in an open letter:
“Dear Editor, On Sunday 11th November, Bath Quakers will again be taking part in the ceremony at the Bath War Memorial. With the respectful acknowledgement of the British Legion, we have laid a white poppy wreath for the last two years. Each time the wreath has been removed in the days after the event. We are hurt by this action and would like to take the opportunity to explain the origins and purpose of the white poppy. It was launched in 1933, a few years after the red poppy, by the Co-operative Women’s Guild. These were wives, daughters, sisters and cousins of soldiers killed and wounded, who were challenging society to prevent this kind of catastrophe happening again. They were seeking to find other ways to resolve conflict and an end to all war. Proceeds from the sale of white poppies fund peace education work. Our white poppy wreath is laid out of respect for all people killed, maimed, wounded and traumatised by war, civilians and military personnel from all sides involved in conflict. Many people wear both the white and red poppy. This year Bath Quakers will be laying two attached wreaths, one white and one red, to convey the complexity of this issue. It demonstrates our respect for the event and all participants, and our compassion for fallen military personnel and their families. At the same time it confirms our remembrance of all victims of war and our determination to work for the peaceful resolution of all conflicts. We hope that this year our wreath will be respected and remains where it is laid.”
Whilst St Mary’s Torquay make a point of stating on their social media:
“Come and see these incredible creations by our local Yarn Fairies – a poppy for each person remembered on the War Memorial and a ring of 24 white poppies for the 21 children and 3 teachers killed when St Mary’s was destroyed by enemy action on the 30th May 1943. May they all rest in peace.”
Yet the conflict over white and red continues with a regular appearance of some aggrieved MPs or newspapers looking for copy, and the unfortunate link with the term ‘snowflake’ with equal amounts of those in the entertainment world supporting it. Michael Morpurgo, children’s author writing in a Radio times article:
“Wearing the red poppy for me is not simply a ritual, not worn as a politically correct nod towards public expectation. It is in honour of them, in respect and in gratitude for all they did for us. But I wear a white poppy alongside my red one, because I know they fought and so many died for my peace, our peace. And I wear both side by side because I believe the nature of remembrance is changing, and will change, as the decades pass since those two world wars.”
I shall leave the last word to poet Professor Benjamin Zephaniah
“Rise above the wars The folly of endless fight, Let’s try making love, Let’s make our poppies white.”