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Even in discordant times, a poignant national symbol endures in Britain. It's small and red

Laura King, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LONDON -- In Britain, the poppies bloom in November.

Every late autumn, the artificial red blossoms appear without fail, fashioned from fabric or felt, enamel or plastic. They are affixed to the lapels of newscasters, the team uniforms of footballers, the rumpled raincoats of Tube passengers. Even the queen dons a scarlet poppy brooch.

The poppy pins are meant to commemorate military sacrifice in all the country's wars. But they are most closely associated with a conflict whose wounds still linger more than a century after its end -- World War I, when modern battlefield weapons met antiquated customs of warfare, to devastating effect.

Some three-quarters of a million British soldiers lost their lives in what was then called the Great War. Including combatants drawn from across the British Empire, the fatality figure rises to nearly 1 million.

"The First World War persists in our public mind-set and remains this kind of trauma," said Laura Clouting, a senior curator at the Imperial War Museum in London who specializes in World War I. "The sheer numbers of men and women who died -- for Britain, these losses were unprecedented and never matched since."

Working-class recruits bore the brunt of the casualties in terms of total numbers. But wealthy, well-born young men -- considered, in class-conscious Britain, to be the creme de la creme of society, destined for greatness -- initially made up most of the field-officer corps and suffered disproportionate fatalities in horrific engagements such as the Battle of the Somme, in which 125,000 British service members died.

 

The poppy-wearing origin story is well known, stemming from a simple but shattering poem by a Canadian military doctor, John McCrae, who himself would die of meningitis before the war's end. In 1915, struck by the presence of the hardy weed-like flowers springing from battlefield wastelands and rapidly expanding cemeteries on the Western Front, McCrae penned the lines known to generations of schoolchildren: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row ... "

The wearing of poppy pins is tied to Remembrance Day, commemorating the armistice between the Allies and Germany signed at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918 -- famously, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In cities and towns across Britain, as well as elsewhere in the Commonwealth, the proliferation of red lapel flowers becomes noticeable from around the end of October, with numbers swelling as the anniversary approaches.

Poppy pins take on a kind of Rorschach quality; some see wearing one as a way of honoring lives lost to history, while others see a glorification of conflict, especially the unpopular American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which British troops played an important role. Instead of red artificial flowers, some wear white ones to symbolize hopes for peace.

Public figures who spurn the red poppy can face a backlash. In eight years of playing for several different English teams, soccer midfielder James McClean has refused to wear one, citing the actions of British troops in his Northern Ireland hometown of Londonderry. The city, also known as Derry, was the site of 1972's "Bloody Sunday" killings, in which British paratroopers opened fire on protesters marching for civil rights for Roman Catholics. In all, 14 died.

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