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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

This year's Remembrance Day commemorations come at a polarizing moment. Britain is locked in acrimony over Brexit, the planned but so-far-stymied exit from the European Union.

Amid the angry debate, some see imperial nostalgia in hard-line Brexiters' sloganeering imperative: "Take back control." In 1914, when the Great War erupted, Britain was still a great power, presiding over a far-flung empire, though it emerged from the conflict bruised and battered.

"Brexit presses upon a lot of attitudes about what we aspire to, what we want our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world to be," said Clouting. "So do poppies and other kinds of remembrance -- we're honoring those who died protecting our allies, and shared values."

The annual distribution of poppy pins is largely spearheaded by a Royal British Legion charity, the Poppy Appeal, which supports veterans' causes. Many Britons say making a small donation and picking up a poppy pin is a nod to family tradition, underpinned by half-remembered lore of long-ago suffering.

"I didn't know my great-granddad, of course," said Samantha Langham, harried from a day at her London sales office but pausing to drop a few one-pound coins into the tin at an appeal stand set up inside a supermarket. "But I do remember my grandfather telling me, when I was quite small, that when he was a boy my age, his own father came home from that war, and would never, ever talk about what happened over there."

The poppy for a time was also a prominent symbol of World War I remembrance in the United States, largely thanks to the immense popularity of McCrae's poem. But it eventually faded from view there -- perhaps because for most Americans, the war lacked the wrenching firsthand impact experienced by virtually everyone in Britain.

The poppy's role as public symbol may have reached its apotheosis in 2014, with a hugely successful public art installation at the Tower of London: nearly a million ceramic poppies set up in a moat.

 

Four years later, the centenary of the war's end, the searing Peter Jackson film "They Shall Not Grow Old" used colorized images to bring the reality of trench warfare to life, spurring fresh public interest in the wartime lot of ordinary soldiers.

The 2018 commemorations were massive -- and the poppy displays especially abundant. With no major anniversary, this year's are smaller and more low-key. But Clouting doesn't see the poppy tradition dying out any time soon.

"There's this stark realization that there are no longer any living links to this war," she said. "So we have to sort out all over again how to feel about it. Remembrance persists -- as long as people want to remember."

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