by Bruce Scates
Red poppies are a familiar sight in November. We see them pinned to the lapels of newsreaders and businessmen, youthful schoolchildren and ageing war veterans. Not a single politician is likely to front a camera without one.
Poppy Day is, as one British historian has remarked, ”cosmopolitan in origin”. It was inspired by the poem of a Canadian World War I medical officer, John McCrae, who died in 1918.
These lines are dutifully recited across the country every Remembrance Day. Seldom do we ponder the latter part of McCrae's poem, which urges the public to reject a conciliated peace and exhorts exhausted armies to fight on to the bitter end.
An American woman, Moina Michael, was so impressed by the poem that she persuaded American ex-servicemen to adopt the poppy as their emblem. French and British veteran groups followed. By 1921 more than a million red poppies were sold each year. They raised much-needed funds for men damaged by war: the gassed, the maimed, the crippled, the insane. And here we see the essential utility of the poppy as a symbol: it was intended as much to aid the living as to honour the dead.
As a metaphor for remembrance the red poppy is compelling. Poppies grow best in disturbed soil – they quickly carpeted the mud of no man's land when war finally ended in 1918. Red symbolised the blood of soldiers. And the poppy, traditionally associated with opiates, promised an end to pain. For many (then as now) this act of remembrance was a way of healing the trauma, laying to rest the demons of war.
Poppies today may well be seen as a vehicle for remembrance. Ironically, they are also a symbol of wilful forgetfulness. Historically, the red poppy of opium was also code for oblivion. It prompts us to consider what we choose to forget every Remembrance Day.
We have forgotten the white poppies that once offered an alternative way of remembering. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, they were worn by men and women desperate to avoid the outbreak of another war. White poppies were weaved into wreaths laid at graves and war memorials, they were embroidered into banners carried by returned soldiers demanding the right to work, they became the symbol of the Women's Co-operative Guild, wives and mothers determined that their men should never march to slaughter again.
The white poppy, called the pledge for peace, reminded the public that the sufferings of war were not confined to soldiers. Thousands of children died of starvation and disease as a direct result of the Allied blockade of Germany (between 1914 and 1919). These non-combatant casualties became a feature of the “total wars” that marred the 20th century, where terrorising the civilian population became the accepted way of conducting military campaigns.
The white poppy symbolised peace, morality and decency. It recognised that the men sent to fight as cannon fodder were not rewarded with a land fit for heroes. They returned from the Great War to unemployment, insecurity and ultimately the Great Depression. It recognised that the big words of “freedom” and “democracy” concealed the sordid realities of a war fought to preserve colonialism and inequality; that an arms trade then, as now, made a fortune from the killing.
Above all, the white poppy enshrined a terrible truth. The Great War had been justified as the war to end all wars – what a great lie that turned out to be.
White poppies were adopted as a pledge for peace by a wide cross-section of society. Church leaders and communists; trade unionists and women's groups; returned soldiers critical of the conservatism of the British Legion; artists and writers (like Vera Brittain), the poignant social conscience of their day. For all these people, Armistice Day (as it was called then) was nowhere near strong enough in its condemnation of war.
In one moment, the public was told to mourn the sacrifice of millions, in the next there were the tired cliches of pride, patriotism and service for one's country – the ”old lies” they argued, that had sent young men to war. Those who wore white poppies asked for a stronger statement, an admission that lasting peace could not be achieved by human conflict, a recognition that only reconciliation and tolerance could unite rather than divide the nations (and religions) of the world, a call for peace with justice.
We had need of this voice in the 1920s and 1930s as the world careered towards the evils of war and fascism. We have need of it again.
Professor Bruce Scates holds the Chair of History and Australian Studies at Monash University. He is the author of the official history of the Shrine of Remembrance, and several landmark studies of the memory of war, including Return to Gallipoli: Walking the Battlefields of the Great War. Professor Scates leads an international team writing the History of Anzac Day.
This article was first published in The Age, November 2013