BIG DEBATE: Should we still wear Poppies for Remembrance Day 100 years on?

Poppies growing in an east London school garden

Poppies growing in an east London school garden - Credit: Morpeth Secondary

This year’s Remembrance Day on November 11 and the Poppy Day Appeal for the Royal British Legion marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. We still wear the bright red poppies of the Fields of Flanders to remember the fallen a century ago and from every war since. But many today question why we should commemorate warefare at all. To some, like Rob Ferguson of the Newham Stop the War Coalition, it marks senseless slaughter on the battlefield. But for others, like Dr Stephen Clarke of the Royal British Legion, Remembrance honours the fallen and supports those who have lost their loved ones or those who fought for their country and returned invalided...

Dr Stephen Clarke [left] and Rob Ferguson

Dr Stephen Clarke [left] and Rob Ferguson - Credit: Archant

Dr Stephen Clarke, Head of Remembrance at the Royal British Legion, looks back on events in this centenery year with pride that we remember those who never returned:

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The Remembrance events began back in May, with the D-Day 70th commemorations of the Second World War, and celebrating our surviving Normandy veterans.

In August, we marked 100 years since the start of the First World War, with the moving simplicity of LightsOut campaign when people switched off in their homes—to mark the lights going out across Europe in 1914. We also saw in east London the phenomenal poppies planted in the moat at the Tower of London.

We remember, too, the fallen in Afghanistan, with the end of operations last month.


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It is Remembrance of a generation of Servicemen and women almost beyond living memory as well as those loved and departed.

Why do we remember? This is a major theme of this year’s Royal British Legion’s learning pack for schools and community groups.

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For veterans, it’s remembering fallen comrades.

For bereaved families, it ensures the memory of loved ones live on.

For the rest of us, Remembrance is an opportunity to reflect on what anchors our identity and bonds our community.

Remembrance is about the memory of the Fallen, but its important social good is about the present and the hope for the future of the living.

The Poppy has symbolised these sentiments for almost 100 years.

But let us not ‘over think’ it. To remember is in our human DNA. The power of Remembrance is its simplicity—it is deeply personal.

So why do I remember? I feel a deep sense of gratitude and identity knowing the stories of my great-grandfather who served in the First World War and my grandfather in the Second World War, as well as family still serving in the Armed Forces.

I recall the spirit in which they served and still serve—enduring values no less important for society today.

My memory often returns to the stories I have received at the Royal British Legion from veterans and families over many years, often uplifting, even humorous—but also stories of loss and sadness, all deeply moving.

This is the richness of Remembrance.

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But anti-war campaigners like Rob Ferguson believe Remembrance sanitises the grim realities of warfare and the pain and suffering it causes. The Newham Stop the War Coalition campaigner isn’t against Remembrance—just who and how we remember:

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Millions of people will wish to remember on November 11 the deaths of those in past wars. I will be among them—but will not identify my sorrow with any ‘official’ acts of memory.

From the day the guns fell silent on the Western Front in 1918, two contesting traditions emerged over how to honour the war dead.

The ‘official’ response was to ensure support for future wars by memories of the last.

But others were determined to ensure quite the opposite.

After 1919, the government tried to organise ‘Victory’ parades. Many ex-servicemen opposed these celebrations and refused to take part.

So the parades were abandoned for the more commemorative Remembrance Day—but even these Armistice ceremonies were disrupted by former soldiers.

The Poppy Appeal was launched in 1921 as the ‘Haig Fund’.

General Haig sent millions of young men to die for a few yards of mud. He was renowned for having no respect for human life or care for casualties.

My father always refused to wear a poppy, which in those days was inscribed with Haig’s name.

London’s East End was a centre of resistance to war and conscription.

In 1916, the biggest protest march in the country left the East End to join a protest of 200,000 at Trafalgar Square addressed by Sylvia Pankhurst, the working women’s suffragette and anti-war campaigner.

Those who promote ‘official’ memory want us to forget the role of those responsible for the deaths of millions and those who resisted—the objectors, the soldiers who fraternised and whole companies who deliberately shot in the air.

I will stand in memory on November 11 for the military and civilian victims of the First World War.

I will remember the victims of today’s wars.

I will remember our governments that bear the guilt—I do not stand with them.

Some who share my opposition to war will wear a red poppy. Some will wear a white poppy of peace.

I will wear a ‘Stop the War Coalition’ badge.

Afterwards I will talk to people about the campaign to stop the bombing of Iraq and Syria.

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