This year I will not wear a poppy – it has lost its meaning


This year, for the first time, I will not wear a poppy. It has lost its meaning, it has become nothing but a fake conformity and a political symbol. It is used to sanitise and glorify war, not remember the victims of senseless murder and mass bloodshed.

I expect to be derided for my decision, but remember, symbols such as the wearing of the poppy are a matter of personal choice and freedom of expression. When you speak of those who fought for our freedom, remember that means the freedom for all us to choose to wear the poppy or not. And hear me out before you jump to conclusions and proclaim that I am unpatriotic or don’t care about “our boys” who serve and who have given their lives, as are often the go-to insults these days.

Remembrance no longer seems to be about remembering, it’s about being seen to remember. The wearing of a poppy had become a conformity, and with that has lost its meaning. Such a symbol can only be genuine if the act is one of choice: otherwise, it loses its potency.

While TV hosts, reality contestants and pop-stars compete to have the most stylish, designer poppies of the year, and every presenter and guest on TV shows are pinned with one as a matter of formality, those who choose not to wear one are publicly shamed. In Orwellian Britain, public figures face attacks, all the way up to death threats, for not wearing a poppy.

Newspapers ran outraged headlines about Jeremy Corbyn not bowing low enough at the cenotaph. And this week England cricketer Moeen Ali had been “caught” not wearing a poppy on his lapel in an official Ashes team photo. His explanation that it had simply fallen off didn’t wash and a barrage of Islamophobia was directed at the player. The poppy has gone from a small act of remembrance to a virtual whip that is deployed to beat non-conformists into line, a tool for nationalists to question patriotism – that has nothing whatsoever to do with the great sacrifice of war.

Think of what the poppy stands for, or at least what it was originally intended to stand for.

The ambition of First World war veterans was to ensure this was the war to end all wars, in armistice they hoped nobody would ever have to suffer what they suffered

The poppy is meant to be a symbol of remembrance and hope, to say never again to the horrors of a spat between politicians murdering almost an entire generation of men.

Wearing a poppy in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe of the First World War had enormous poignancy. There was not a village or neighbourhood in Britain that had escaped the ravages of the Western Front – the poppy was a unifying memento, uniting people behind the cause that such bloodshed should never be allowed to happen again.

Fast forward to today. Politicians are happy to wear the poppy whilst at the same time voting to bomb innocent families in Syria. They use the jingoistic words and propaganda of the past to make war seem like a normal phenomenon, an acceptable political option. Tony Blair agreed to help America bring freedom to the oil fields of Iraq whilst wearing a poppy every November, Theresa May will wear a poppy whilst selling arms to Saudi Arabia, those same arms that take life from the children of Yemen – it seems the value of the poppy has not taught us anything, and hence a symbol that held so much importance has become defunct.

I understand, that for the vast majority of British people of a certain age the wearing of a poppy is deeply entwined with family memories, and recalling the sacrifice of fallen ancestors. But we now have generations in this country that know not the pain of war – we have to be careful what message the poppy sends to them. And to those who wore the first poppies, it has been almost warped out of recognition.

The idea that the more grandiose the gesture, the more sincere the sentiment simply does not holdPublic displays of remembrance can be cathartic, but the days of mourning are gone – they would be better served without the militaristic pomp and circumstance. There is no glory to be found in war, nobody wins when it comes to war – except perhaps arms dealers (but that is a topic that deserves its own article).

A photo from the British Legion website (now removed) showing children wearing ‘Future Soldier’ t-shirts.

It is images like this, on the left (now removed from the Royal British Legion website), which finally pushed my decision to ditch the poppy. Children advertising the poppy appeal have the words “future soldier” on their t-shirts. The poppy is meant be a symbol of peace, to stop future war’s and to stop us from repeating the mistakes of the past, not label our children as future soldiers to be sacrificed – otherwise what we have learned nothing, and are doomed to witness history repeat itself again and again.

A spokesperson for the Royal British Legion had this to say: “The poppy honours all those who have sacrificed their lives to protect the freedoms we enjoy today, and so the decision to wear it must be a matter of personal choice. If the poppy became compulsory, it would lose its meaning and significance. We are thankful for every poppy worn, but we never insist upon it. To do so would be contrary to the spirit of remembrance and all that the poppy stands for.”

“If we don’t end war, war will end us” – H.G. Wells

The ambition of First World war veterans was to ensure this was the war to end all wars, in armistice they hoped nobody would ever have to suffer what they suffered. Today that phrase is almost absent from discussions about the poppy.

Next year, the world will be commemorating the passing of 100 years since the end of the Great War (WWI). The poppy was intended to make sure we never forgot those who lost their lives in a brutal and pointless fashion – but it seems to an extent that within a century we already have. As Alan Bennett writes in The History Boys, it’s not lest we forget; it’s lest we remember.

The poppy is meant to be a symbol of remembrance and hope, to say never again to the horrors of a spat between politicians murdering almost an entire generation of men.

I will observe a moment of remembrance on Armistice Day, but I will pay my respects in private – because my real despair is for those who live in this present world, still plagued by war, famine and division: because we have not learned the lessons of the past. Hopefully, the red flower of Flanders Field will once again serve as a pledge of peace, but until the day I shall refrain from wearing the poppy.

Perhaps you might be quick to disregard my opinion, I suspect many will have jumped to conclusions from the title of this piece without reading any further. But if you’ve made it this far into this article let me remind you of the words of acclaimed war poet Wilfred Owen:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country)

Owen would likely be devastated at what has happened to the poppy, and that his Anthem for Doomed Youth now seems forgotten. Let us remember, but let us stop being so inward-looking, let us instead of turning our heads to the past and glorifying war turn our eyes to the present, and the future – else nothing will change, and all those lives have been lost in vain.