Reconciling Red and White Poppies

Pat Romano reflects on some of the difficult truths of war through the lens of the conflict over red and white poppies. Both symbols arose out of the devastation of WWI, the world’s first industrial war. From the start, many perceived the white poppy as offensive to the soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice; the white poppy, however, raises some important questions that can be easily silenced by the more ambivalent message of the red poppy.


Over the past few years at Dawson College white poppies have appeared alongside red poppies in early November as a way to remember war. This has not been without conflict. When some students last year began to organize a ceremony on Remembrance Day and invited some war veterans, they were told by the legion that they would not be involved if white poppies were present. Some at Dawson have also seen the distribution of both poppies in the Atrium as at times seeming more like a competition for followers. Meanwhile, many of us find we have a difficult decision to make: wear a red poppy, a white one, both or avoid the decision altogether by wearing none?

These symbols, one far better known, but both introduced after the First World War, can raise powerful emotions and often become a source of conflict – a conflict that is really rooted in competing world views about how we should remember war — what should be acknowledged and what is best forgotten. This tension between the poppies is not new, as, while the white poppy was originally intended by its creators to complement the red poppy, it has long been rejected by official veteran’s associations as both unnecessary and a means to politicize a solemn day to honour those who have fought in war (Iles 2008). Of course, politics always intrudes into our public efforts to remember war.

Both of these symbols emerged out of the world’s first industrial war, WWI, where the massive losses of life seemed to demand new public rituals of remembrance. The sheer folly of WWI is incomprehensible. On the very first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, in just 24 hours, 20,000 British soldiers were killed and a further 40,000 wounded. More than 35% of all German men who were between the ages of 19 and 22 when the war began and one half of all French men aged 20-32 at the war’s outbreak were dead when it was over. Thirty-nine percent of Canadian men sent overseas were killed or injured. In all, an estimated 9 million soldiers died and 21 million men injured, most for a few miles of land (Hochschild 2011). And, of course, beyond these numbers, were the many more who endured their own private struggles with their memories. Civilians did not come under direct fire the way they did in the Second World War and all subsequent ones, becoming the largest casualties in modern warfare. However, the brutal logic of killing innocents in a situation where victory demanded the full mobilization of society was revealed by the British blockade of Germany which caused the death of perhaps as many as 750,000 civilians from starvation and disease.

The red poppy has become a lasting and universally-recognized symbol for military casualties – the men and women in the armed forces who have lost their lives, limbs or sanity. The symbol though was not immediately accepted. Many saw it as a rather inappropriate symbol for war remembrance as poppies, given their medicinal and narcotic properties, had long been associated with sleep and oblivion – thus forgetting rather than remembering (although perhaps there is something inadvertently appropriate here as there are many truths about war that we tend to forget). While red poppies were growing widely in the French and Belgium battlefields of WWI, they were hardly the only flower to bloom. Indeed, it was Canadian John McCrae’s poem “In Flander’s Fields” that entrenched the red poppy into popular consciousness (Iles 2008).

In Flander’s fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row

The scarlet poppy carries much symbolism — the blood of dead soldiers, the possibility of regeneration (a very problematic suggestion as the dead are not reborn and even nature itself has limited regenerative powers). The scattering of petals is also a powerful means in rituals to symbolize the loss of so many individual lives (Iles 2008). The poppy’s ultimate meaning though is far from clear and it can mean different things to different people. Perhaps its popularity is in fact due to the ambivalence of the symbol. For some it is a reminder of the terrible cost of war and our hope for peace; for other’s heroic sacrifice and a patriotic reminder of a citizen’s duty.

Our past wars can be used to remind us of war’s horrors or to legitimize war and sometimes promote the next one. This is a truth that should not be forgotten and is the message carried by the far clearer symbol of the white poppy. Initially produced by the Women’s Co-operative Guild, whose members included many women who had lost husbands, sons and brothers in the First World War, it offers a strong rejection of war. The white poppy, introduced in 1933 after a very real effort at disarmament ended in failure, leaving Guild members convinced that the major powers of the day were not interested in ending war, was intended to remind us of all of war’s victims and serve as a complement to the red poppy’s focus on military losses. From its initial introduction, however, the official representatives of veterans were united in their opposition; the white poppy was unnecessary and dishonoured those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

The desire to honour our soldiers is a legitimate one as we, civilians, have a responsibility for those we send to kill and die on our behalf, but it also carries risks – ones raised by our government’s increased promotion of the symbol since the “war on terror”– on our currency, highway signs, and special license plates for veterans, for example. And, one made clear in the famous poem that made the poppy a symbol of war remembrance.

McCrae’s poem, written during the second battle of Ypres where the Germans used poison gas for the first time, begins as a powerful expression of loss:

In Flander’s fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago.
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flander’s fields.

But then its focus shifts.

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flander’s fields.

McCrae’s poem ends with a disturbing call to arms that suggests that ending the war before victory is achieved will dishonour those who have died. It is an attempt to find meaning in the midst of incredible human loss (Holmes 2005). To consider that these men died for nothing is impossible for McCrae and for many of us, certainly for a great many of us who have lost people we loved to war. But, consider Adam Hochschild’s characterization of the British public during WWI:

The more horrific the suffering, ran the chilling emotional logic of public opinion, the more noble the sacrifice the wounded and dead had made – and the more worthwhile the goals must be for which they had given their all. (228)

On the German side, where the trauma of WWI was so much greater given that they had no victory to soothe them, a veteran merely four years after the war expressed his rage: “It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain….No, we do not pardon, we demand – vengeance!” (xv) His name was Adolf Hitler. It has been argued that, while democratic societies may find it more difficult to start wars as they need to obtain popular support, they find it harder to end them as they need to justify the losses – and justification requires a victory, even if this quest means prolonging a losing war.

Consider that by 1916 on the British front, high casualties in endless failed assaults came to be seen as a sign of success: the Commander of the British forces, Douglas Haig, defined the failed Somme offensive as a success not because of the slivers of territory seized but because the huge loss of British lives must, he concluded with no evidence, mean an equivalent or even greater loss of German lives. This perverse logic led him to sometimes fly into a rage if he felt that British losses were too low! Haig’s conviction was bolstered by his refusal to face the truth: he refused to go to the front and see the carnage for himself. As he wrote in his diary, he “felt that it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty stations because these visits made him physically ill” (209-210).

So we must ask: What if the cause is not great? What if the soldiers are dying for nothing? What if military victory is impossible? These possibilities are hard to accept. Many soldiers themselves do become disillusioned with their leaders’ depictions of the causes at stake and often the civilians’ lack of understanding about the reality of war. In his profound personal reflection of war, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, J. Glenn Gray noted that “a civilian far removed from the battle area is nearly certain to be more bloodthirsty than the front-line soldier whose hatred has to be…answer(ed) with action” (1959: 135). For most soldiers, what gets them to keep going on, despite the traumatizing horrors of the battlefield, is the thought of the guy next to them. As revealed in memoir after memoir, it’s the comradeship between soldiers that makes war bearable, and provides the emotional force that ensures that most men keep fighting regardless of whether they believe any more in the war’s larger purpose.

Moreover, the desire to honour the loss of loved ones can be easily manipulated by those seeking to raise support for war. Perhaps the most poignant example of this is Mrs. Aletta Sullivan – a five gold star mother, who lost all her sons in a single act of WWII, the torpedoing of the USS Juneau in 1942. Mrs. Sullivan responded to her inconceivable loss by becoming the US government’s public symbol of patriotic motherhood, joining the US war effort, travelling the country, raising money and calling on other mothers to make a similar sacrifice (Elshtain 1987: 191). We might ask how, knowing what she knew, she could have done this? But, we could also ask how she could not.

The images of military heroes and honourable sacrifice – so often symbolically connected to the red poppy – serve to silence our doubts about war. Heroes die bravely and with justice on their side; the very meaning of the word sacrifice implies that one gives up something precious for something more important; and honouring the soldiers can all too often demand that we never question these ideas. So, how can we reconcile the human need to find meaning in great loss in a way that does not encourage the heroic ideas of martial sacrifice? How can we reconcile the honouring the soldier message of the red poppy with the more critical message of the white poppy, which serves to ask the questions that we need to ask about war?

Perhaps we need to remember that there are many soldiers’ stories and not all are given attention at our Remembrance Day ceremonies.

• Consider the brilliant WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetry contained none of the ambivalence of McCrae’s, but rather spoke off the inhumane reality of war in the industrial age. There was in his view no heroism or honour in the mass death of WWI, simply the thoughtless slaughter of men. Sassoon risked court-martial and execution by publishing A Soldier’s Statement in 1917, where he declared his commitment to stop fighting.
• Consider the tens of thousands of men who participated in the Christmas truce of 1914 or the numerous others who return to meet years later their old enemies in an attempt to come to terms with their guilt over what they did during the war. These stories remind us of an important truth — the enemy is just as human as we are – and call on us to think more about what we ask soldiers to do.
• Consider the bravery of three American helicopter crewmen, who in 1968, turned their guns on their fellow soldiers to end the slaughter of innocent villagers at My Lai during the Vietnam War or J.Glenn Gray’s warning to us that, while a great many soldiers dislike killing, many in fact come to recognize that they in fact do (52). Both serve as reminders to us of the dangerous fury of war once unleashed.
• Finally, consider the courage of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who had a public breakdown after leading the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda that was prevented from interfering in the genocide. He reminds us of our responsibilities to protect the civilian victims of war.

For many soldiers who return home carrying the trauma of what they have seen and what they have done, the only possible meaning to be drawn from war is that it reminds us once again that we need to work harder at creating the conditions of peace. This is the fundamental message of the white poppy. This message is not invisible in the symbol of the red poppy, but it can be all too easily silenced.

Works Cited

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Women and War. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Gray, J, Glenn. The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. New York: Harper and Row: 1959.

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. Boston: Mariner Books, 2011.

Holmes, Nancy. “In Flanders Fields” – Canada’s Official Poem: Breaking Faith. Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en literature canadienne. (Jan 2005). Web. 30 Sept. 2014.

Iles, Jennifer. “In Remembrance: The Flanders Poppy” Mortality 13.3 (2008):201-221.

Pat Romano
Humanities, Dawson College

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