In a 2013 tweet, which seems to resurface every November, Daily Mail columnist Andrew Pierce writes that he ‘counted 132 students going into Guildford University. Only one wearing a poppy. Clearly not history students’.
Within this tweet is the crux of the misconception as to why a large proportion of students choose not to wear poppies, the assumption that it is a result of ignorance to our history.
In this yearly political debate, dominated by overly polemical takes, I’d like to add some nuance as to why many young people opt out.
The Poppy Appeal was launched following the end of the First World War, a symbol which aimed to emblematise simultaneously the horror of battle, and the hope of recovery. The event was termed ‘the war to end all wars’, and the poppy was promoted as a symbol of this consensus.
Following the subsequent Second World War however, it can be perceived where the understanding of the symbol began to change.
The Second World War was undeniably a triumph over near inconceivable evil, yet this began to inform the notion that the British army, forever more, represented unquestionable good. The filtering down of this idea has triggered a revision of the poppy by many, not as a symbol of anti-war, but as an iconic representation of our military prowess. This attitude has been proliferated by numerous far right groups. Britain First’s Facebook is permanently populated by poppy-orientated posts, whilst the EDL recently staged a rooftop protest at FIFA headquarters demanding that they would allow the poppy to be embroidered to our national kit.
Those in these groups are attempting to morph the poppy into a symbol which celebrates the nationalist aspect of the military, rather than a rejection of the horror of mass-death.Such an attitude has seemingly began to inform the Royal British Legion itself, with a photo on their website, which has since been removed, showing a girl holding a giant poppy with the phrase ‘future soldier’ across her t-shirt. The aspiration towards war should be the polar opposite of what they wish to achieve.
For many students, this is the only poppy which they are aware of, one which celebrates war rather than rejects it.
Many are opting for white poppies, favoured for their distinctly pacifist stance, whilst other refuse to wear any poppy whatsoever.
The issue created by this is that the funds raised by the white poppy do not help the families of veterans, an aspect of their charity which has received much disdain.
I feel that the desire to glorify war is a toxin ingrained within the biological makeup of our society, but that the poppy, rather than becoming hijacked by this desire, should be reclaimed as a symbol of our resistance of war.
To reach this, the consensus of ‘never again’ should be returned to the forefront of The Royal British Legion’s aims, and we should reiterate that wearing a poppy is a choice, not something to force on those who disagree.
Reece Parker is Editor-in-Chief of The Gryphon at Leeds University.