The story behind the poppy and why people are wearing white ones


The poppy has long stood for the symbol of remembrance – for those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice in conflicts fought world wide. But what were the origins behind it and why are people wearing white ones?

Each year HM the Queen lays a wreath of poppies at the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday. She is accompanied by other Royals, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior politicians. But this November, for the first time, the Queen and Duke will instead choose to watch proceedings from a balcony, as the Prince of Wales steps in to represent his mother.

It was thanks to a Canadian Doctor – Lt Col John McCrea who in the First World War symbolised the image of the poppy with the battlefields of the Western front.

He had been very moved by what he had seen: landscapes, villages and lives were destroyed – torn to pieces by the shelling which took place over the four years of conflict.

The once beautiful countryside was transformed into bleak and barren fields of mud where no sign of life could be found.

However amongst this darkness something did begin to grow – bright red poppies. Giving hope that all was not lost. The poem is now read at almost every remembrance service in the country: “In Flanders Fields”.

Inspired by the poem, shortly after the end of the war American academic Moina Michael – began to make and sell red silk poppies to commemorate those who had died.

And in 1921 the British Legion was formed (not being granted Royal status until 1971) that began to sell these poppies in order to raise money for veterans. The following year a factory employing disabled ex-servicemen was set up to manufacture poppies.

Today, the poppy remains the symbol of remembrance, with the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal continuing to raise millions to help veterans and current servicemen and women across the UK.

However it is not without its own controversy as last year The FA was handed a fine of 45,000 Swiss francs (£35,308) by FIFA for several incidents including the wearing of poppies on armbands by players. FIFA saw it as a “political symbol”.

Several manufactures not associated with the Royal British Legion (RBL) produce poppies as a fashion accessory marketed specifically at this time of year. However none of the profits made by these sales goes towards veterans. While they are not breaking any rules in doing so, people often buy these mistakingly assuming they are supporting the RBL.

There is also the choice to wear a White poppy, which is worn in the run-up to Remembrance Day every year by thousands of people in the UK and has been for over eighty years. They are sold by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU).

There are three elements to the meaning of white poppies: they represent remembrance for all victims of war, a commitment to peace and a challenge to attempts to glamorise or celebrate war.

However many are outraged by people who wear white poppies as the money raised by selling them does not go to the Royal British Legion and benefit current and former service men and women. Colonel Richard Kemp, who was Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan said about people who wear white poppies:

“They are an insult to the war dead and the war wounded and deprive people who really need it of charitable funds to help them get through life when they’ve suffered so horrifically as a result of war.”