Sunday, 6 November 2016

What can we learn from the poppy?

It’s November, the month of remembrance, and as usual an SSF representative will place flowers on the grave of Siegfried Sassoon at Mells. Real flowers, not poppies, though people often do place artificial poppies at this spot.

I bought a poppy last weekend and decided to try the stick-on variety because the pin-on ones have a habit of falling apart.  I lost it a few yards from the British Legion stall. Picking it up off the road, I took it back and a very kind gentleman decided to replace it with two poppies, one of each type. The sticky one fell off before I got back to my car and this time I couldn’t find it. The pin-on one lasted a few more days but then disappeared of its own accord and all I could find was the pin. You would think someone could have come up with a better design after all these years.

I suppose there is method in their madness. You don’t want people continuing to use the poppy from the year before rather than buying a new one, do you? Comic Relief get around the problem by redesigning their red noses every time. On the other hand, that could lead to having surplus stocks of last year’s design left over, another waste of funds. 

What is more intriguing is the sheer endurance of the poppy as an emblem. It has lasted nearly a hundred years now, having first been adopted by the British Legion in 1921. Although several million were made for fund-raising purposes (and they weren't plastic then), they were selling out so fast every year that the Scots had to open their own factory in 1926 to ensure they got their fair share, with Lady Haig - wife of the much-reviled senior commander Douglas Haig - as its patron. It is still running, making approximately five million poppies a year along with other commemorative items such as wreaths, crosses and corsages.

The SSF has laid a few poppy wreaths over the years as well - notably on the grave of Siegfried's great friend, David Cuthbert Thomas, at Fricourt, a visit that can be either very pleasant or very challenging, depending on the mud.

A forerunner of the Poppy Appeal was the Alexandra Rose Day, an event inaugurated in 1912 by the widow of King Edward VII. Queen Alexandra had associated herself with many charitable causes, and conceived the idea of selling paper flowers, made by the disabled, to raise money for hospitals. Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (founded in 1902) still exists, as does the Alexandra Rose charity, but the roses are no longer sold on the streets. In the course of the Great War, the “Q.A.s” numbers swelled from 300 (with a reserve of around 2000) to a figure of 10,000 plus.

The symbolism behind the choice of the poppy seems to be an idea of resurrection and renewal – live flowers coming out of the devastated earth, the colour of the blood of those who died there. Life from death. It has been used memorably on screen - at the end of Oh! What a Lovely War!, for example, as well as the final scene in Blackadder Goes Forth. The message is clear from these examples.

But that was not quite what Canadian medic John McCrae meant when he wrote his classic poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915, nearly three years before he died of pneumonia in northern France. The inspiration came to McCrae after he had buried one of his best friends, but he seems to have seen the poppy not so much as a symbol of peace as a reminder to the living that they have a duty to continue the struggle. Regardless of how good a poem it may be, should we be concerned about whether this is an appropriate message to be sending out today?

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