Poppies remain a potent symbol, despite what ‘snowflakes’ say

ROBERT FOX
Prince Harry at Westminster Abbey's Field of Remembrance in London to honour the fallen ahead of Armistice Day: Gareth Fuller/PA

The poppies are out this weekend for Remembrance Sunday yet a poll from Consumer Intelligence suggests a third of under-25s it spoke to will choose not to wear a poppy as it “glorifies war”. Some claimed to be “bullied” into wearing one. This seems to be a cry from the “snowflake generation”, the emerging group of millennials who show particular sensibility to these rough times.

The commemoration of the centenary of the First World War reaches a climax with Armistice Day on November 11 next year — 100 years after the day on which the war to end all wars was supposed to have come to an end in Europe. The problem is that the war didn’t end then and went on in several places, Europe included, for months and even years.

Fashion, taste, cultural and historical perspective towards the commemoration of the convulsions of war shift and change. Despite the parades of massed bands, the bugle calls, the overall sentiment is sorrow not triumphalism.

The poppy remains a potent symbol, especially for British and Commonwealth veterans and mourners, though the reference is now taken up by American and Chinese leaders, I note, as the Remembrance weekend approaches. The production of poppies by the Royal British Legion and the Poppy Fund still nets £43 million a year, the profits going to veterans’ charities.

Ten years ago the ceremonies would have been watched or attended by a handful of veterans with direct experience of the Great War. Ten years hence there will be none alive who fought in the Second World War. As direct memory fades, the question looms of absorbing the legacy of the long wars of the 20th century, and above all the effect of the Great War on today’s culture and society.

To mark its own centenary, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which cares for the graves and monuments of more than 1.7 million from two world wars, launched its foundation this week to encourage the understanding of its work. It will promote volunteering, outreach and learning projects to help the upkeep of sites in the UK, where it tends to the graves of 140,000 fallen. For Armistice Day, supporters are encouraged to link up through a mobile app — Hold High the Torch — in a global act of commemoration.

January 28 marks the centenary of the death of John McCrae, the Canadian poet who wrote In Flanders Fields, which began the adoption of the poppy. A century ago in April, English poet Isaac Rosenberg was killed at Arras. His Break of Day in the Trenches, the greatest war — and maybe anti-war— poem, ends with a quiet admonition to the “no-poppies” lobby: Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins/Drop, and are ever dropping ….

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