On a cold November morning in New York, 1918, a professor of education named Moina Michael was browsing a copy of Ladies’ Home Journal. It was in these pages that she came across John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields, which described poppies growing among soldiers’ graves in war-torn Europe. Although she had read it many times before, Michael was suddenly struck by the poem. ‘This was for me a full spiritual experience,’ she later recalled. ‘I reached for a used yellow envelope, turned the blank side up and hastily scribbled my pledge to keep the faith with all who died.’
With the poem still fresh in her mind, that same day the 49-year-old headed out into the city in search of poppies, eventually finding 25 silk flowers in a bric-a-brac shop. Pinning one to her coat, she handed out the rest to her colleagues and encouraged them to do the same. Although the First World War ended just two days later, Moina Michael never removed her poppy. Instead, she began an ultimately successful campaign for the poppy to be adopted as an official symbol of remembrance by the American Legion.
Michael’s efforts soon caught the attention of another women, Anna Guerin. Guerin was a remarkable figure: born in France, she’d spent twelve years teaching in Madagascar before becoming an international public lecturer and campaigner. Like Michael, she understood the symbolic potential of the poppy. Unlike Michael, however, Guerin was more interested in helping the living rather than remembering the dead. Just weeks after the 1918 Armistice, Guerin became director of the American and French Children’s League, a recently established charity that employed widows, orphans and war veterans to make cotton poppies.
The charity proved a success, and the years following the First World War became an endless speaking tour for Guerin, as she and her associates travelled the world convincing Allied countries to launch poppy appeals as a way to raise funds for those affected by the war. By 1921, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom had all embraced the scheme, selling poppies made by Guerin’s charity. In each of these countries, women – rarely veterans – were relied on to actually distribute and sell the poppies. From the outset, it was women who conceived, campaigned for and created the poppy appeals that have become such an inseparable part of remembrance. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this. A generation of men had died. A generation of women had to live with the loss. Perhaps this is why the poppy was so close to these women’s hearts in those first years after the war.
But as the poppy grew more popular it became increasingly contentious. There was a growing sense that the Allied victory in the war to end all wars had been a hollow one. Conflicts continued in Eastern Europe. Starvation gripped the Middle East. Germany and Russia had sunk into civil war. In the UK, nearly four million soldiers had returned home to a country exhausted by four years of unprecedented warfare, struggling with recession, fuel shortages and unemployment. ‘We have come back hating war, disgusted with the prattle about ideals, disillusioned entirely about the struggles between nations,’ wrote Will Judy, a captain in the British Army.
Against this depressing backdrop, many in the UK found the pomp and patriotism of Armistice Day grating, if not hypocritical. A large number of veterans refused to take part in the UK’s first Remembrance parade in 1919, denouncing it as a ‘militaristic celebration.’ Some even protested the event, and would continue to do so every November for many more years.
A growing number of women, too, felt uneasy at the increasing militarism of Remembrance Day. The poppy had originally been sold to raise money for all those affected by the war, particularly women and children. That had always been Anna Guerin’s intention, and it was the reason why many women – themselves widows and bereaved mothers – took to selling the poppy. Now that the appeals were orchestrated by the British Legion, however, the focus became fixed squarely on ex-servicemen and women. The seven million civilian casualties of the war were sidelined.
One of the loudest critics of these developments was an unsuspecting organisation known as the Women’s Co-operative Guild. What had begun in 1883 as a forum for Victorian housewives was, by the 1930s, a powerful voice for pacifism in Britain. Again, this isn’t entirely surprising: the First World War had bereaved many of its members, and forced many more to care for husbands, sons and brothers disabled in the conflict. Indeed, pacifism was widely seen as a peculiarly feminine concern in the UK, so much so that special appeals had to be made for men to join to the movement.
The Guild expressed its discomfort with remembrance traditions by launching the white poppy in 1933. Only twelve years had passed since the first nationwide poppy appeal. Representing civilian as well as military victims of war, and a desire to resist all future wars, the white poppy provided an opportunity for women – who had only been granted equal voting rights five years earlier – to protest the hypocrisy and militarism of the state. The idea quickly caught on, and as an anxious British public watched Europe rearm during the 1930s, the white poppy’s popularity skyrocketed among both women and men.
The white poppy was controversial from the start. Wearers were accused of being disrespectful and unpatriotic. White poppy wreaths were torn down from memorials and stamped on by members of the pubic. Some women even lost their jobs for pinning the white poppy to their lapels. Although it was championed as a companion to the red, rather than a replacement, the British Legion wanted nothing to do with it, voting in 1934 to discourage members from wearing the white poppy ‘by all possible means.’ They’ve since softened their stance, although they continue to ask that white poppies aren’t sold alongside red on the rather feeble grounds that ‘this would confuse the public.’
What’s so striking about the controversy surrounding the poppy is how contemporary it all feels. Concerns that politicians are using the symbol to glorify the military rather than mourn the dead are as relevant today as they were in the 1930s. Similarly, the accusations of disrespect and disloyalty hurled at wearers of the white poppy have not changed in 85 years.
This controversy shows no sign of dying down any time soon. Indeed, debates have become more acrimonious in recent years. As the poppy becomes increasingly politicised and polarised, commercialised and commodified, we risk losing sight of the original concerns that inspired women to create the symbol a century ago: the waste of war, its civilian as well as military victims, and the need to work towards peaceful solutions to the world’s problems. These concerns are just as important today as they were a hundred years ago.
Featured image: Nankai/Wikimedia Commons