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Frosty's Ramblings Will you wear a poppy, be it red or white?

As Poppy Day approaches, PETER FROST explains some of the history of that bright evocative flower

THE curious summer we have had, be it through human-made climate change, or just luck as President Donald Trump would have you believe, means that the red corn poppy, Britain’s most colourful weed, is still to be seen on roadside verges even as we approach November 11 — Armistice Day.

Poppies will be a big part of the events that mark the centenary of the end of the war to end all wars — but sadly the war that didn’t end wars at all. Over that century the simple poppy came to mean all kinds of things to all kinds of people and not always for the best.

So which will you wear? My wife Ann always wears a red poppy. She wears it in proud memory of her dad Fred who always wore his red poppy in memory of his own father, another Fred, Ann’s grandfather.

Grandfather Fred died in France in 1916. He had been in France just days and his body was never found. He left a widow and four children including young Fred, Ann’s dad, then aged just six. 

Fred’s mother received a letter from the king reporting her husband’s death. Later when Fred’s two brothers died in the post-war flu epidemic she received another official missive, this time telling her she was no longer entitled to her full widow’s benefit as two of her children had died.

Ann’s dad Fred’s red poppy was the only memorial to his father he ever had. Each November, Ann’s dad would take her to the grave of the unknown soldier in Westminster and they would place their poppy and small wooden cross in what has now become the Field of Remembrance. It is a tradition Ann still tries to keep up in her father and grandfather’s memories. 

Most important must be that the decision to wear a poppy, what colour, or not at all, is an intensely personal one. The case of Stoke City winger James McClean reported on our sports pages this week, and indeed other well publicised cases surely proves that.

The other side of that particular coin is the many supposedly right-on friends who attack Ann and her red poppy. Not knowing her reasons they make a knee-jerk reaction declaring she has simply been duped by jingoism to become a warmonger of the worst order.

So what is this poppy that all the fuss is about? It is the common red corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas), also known as the corn rose, field poppy, Flanders poppy, red poppy, red weed or coquelicot. 

We don’t really know where it originated. North Africa probably, or perhaps ancient Persia. We do know how it travelled. It hitched a lift in the clay jars of seed corn that ancient traders trafficked all over the known world.

Ancient farmers in Britain, Flanders and just about everywhere else would buy a bushel or so of seed from a passing Phoenician and the bonus would be a bunch of colourful scarlet weeds. 

They soon discovered that the poppy seed had plenty of uses in bread and cakes and boiled up in a tea. It even possessed magical curative powers.

The poppy evolved a tiny rock hard seed to last a long time before it landed up somewhere it could grow. 

Poppy seeds, perhaps hundreds of years old, found in funereal jars in ancient tombs have been successfully germinated.

That is the explanation of the huge flowering of poppies in Flanders.

As shells, bombs and trench-digging disturbed the soil, poppy seeds that had lain dormant so long burst into scarlet flower. 

Up to 10 million soldiers were killed in World War I. Estimates of civilian deaths top 1.4 million. As the surviving men returned home, many of them with shell-shock, or what we now call post traumatic stress disorder, they had stories to tell.  

Those who had seen such horrors in Belgium and northern France also would tell another, brighter, story of the extraordinary beauty, persistence and profusion of the fragile but defiant blood red corn poppy.

It was returning North American soldiers who first adopted the red poppy as an emblem. 

Canadian doctor John McCrae had captured the beauty and symbolism a poem: 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow. 
Between the crosses, row on row.

US organisations arranged for women in war-battered France to make artificial poppies raising money for war orphans.

British soldiers too came back from the grimness of war to find that life wasn’t “fit for heroes” as they had been promised. Just like today, returning heroes found the government offhand and tardy in dealing with their problems. 

Some organised themselves into ex-servicemen’s societies of various political opinions and of varying degrees of militancy. In 1921 many of these organisations united to form the British Legion. 

Its purpose was to provide support and to fight for the rights of ex-servicemen, especially the disabled, and their families. In fact what actually happened was it became one of the richest British charities ever.

Soon it set up its own poppy factory, with disabled ex-servicemen making the poppies. Today they produce and sell well over 50 million poppies as well as countless wreaths, small wooden remembrance memorials in the shape of a cross, Muslim Crescent, Star of David, Sikh Khanda or Hindu Om. 

Not everyone is happy to wear the red poppy. Some see them as glorifying war and militaristic thinking. In many people’s eyes they have become a badge of jingoism and a justification of recent wars.

The idea of detaching the poppy from a militaristic culture dates back as far as 1926. The No More War Movement suggested that the British Legion should be asked to imprint “No More War” in the centre of the red poppies instead of “Haig Fund.” 

Douglas Haig was the British general who had ordered so many of his troops to their deaths at the 1918 battle of the Somme — one of the worst bloodbaths in British military history. No wonder he earned the epithet Butcher Haig.

When it came to lions led by donkeys, Haig was certainly our biggest donkey — two million brave lions died under his orders. Still the Legion chose to keep Haig’s name on their poppies until 1994.

So in 1933 the first white poppies appeared, worn mainly by members of the Co-operative Women’s Guild. 

Just a year later the Peace Pledge Union was formed and it began widespread distribution of white peace poppies. Even today, it takes real courage to wear the white peace poppy yet numbers increase every year. Despite much abuse on social media and in person, more than 100,000 people will wear the white poppy.  

It is up to you whether you wear a poppy and what colour it will be, but if you do chose to wear a poppy, red or white or both, wear them with pride.

Never let the poppy become a symbol glorifying war and militaristic thinking. They are about the respect each of us feels for those who paid the greatest price in the ongoing futility of war.

 

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