Tuesday, 1 November 2011

White Poppies or Red on Remembrance Sunday?

In 1933 the Co-operative Women's Guild produced white poppies to be worn on Armistice Day - which became Remembrance Sunday. The Guild made it clear that the white poppy was not intended as an insult to the people who died in the Great War - a war in which many of the Guild women lost men - but a challenge to the continuing drive to war. In 1934 the secular Peace Pledge Union (PPU) was founded; it joined them in the distribution of the poppies and later took over the project.

Conscientious objectors were often treated very badly during times of war even though the Military Service Act of 1916 made it legal to object to fighting. Some went to war in non-combatant roles (for example, as stretcher bearers at the front, facing great danger - and they did not receive military pay) while others refused to have anything to do with the war effort. Objectors had to go before a tribunal, which was notoriously harsh and there was no shortage of people (often women) handing out white feathers to 'cowards'. Many objectors were religious - mostly Quakers - but not all.

Many of the "conchies" in the First World War were imprisoned in Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire. They were paraded through the town as a form of humiliation or threatened with execution. Life was also hard for their families, dealing with the 'shame' and the objectors often found it hard to get work afterwards. Given the harsh treatment of the men who would not fight, they were hardly cowards.

Ian Hislop made an excellent programme about them in 2008.

In World War II, there were nearly 60,000 objectors under the National Services (Armed Forces) Act of 1939. Treatment was less harsh but they were still stigmatised. In some countries today, objectors are still harshly treated. Forces Watch has issued recommendations on how the British Forces should deal with objectors within its ranks. It states that 'The procedure for registering a conscientious objection is not safeguarding the rights of those in the armed forces and, through lack of awareness, some could end up facing court martial and a criminal conviction'.

White poppies are still not without controversy. For example, the Royal Canadian Legion is staunchly opposed to them. In 2007, the BBC's Head of Editorial Policy said that TV presenters wearing anything other than the red poppy would 'undermine the trust of the audience'. The white poppy project is also accused of diverting funds from the British Legion who have been raising money for ex-service people since 1921. Some people see the pacifist ideals of the PPU as naive or misguided.

So what colour poppy will I be wearing? I am broadly a pacifist but not entirely; there are some justifiable wars. I don't think that we should have stayed out of World War II, for example. There are also morally justifiable interventions in other countries' wars. On the other hand, recent governments have been too quick to get involved in overseas wars for less than honourable reasons. And I support the right of anyone to be a conscientious objector.

Consequently, I have bought a white poppy and will also be wearing a red one. It might appear over-liberal to be a pacifist (or in my case, a semi-pacifist) but it's a genuinely-held and considered moral position. I'm aware that, as a woman, I would never have been conscripted and had to act on my beliefs.

It's important to recognise the bravery and sacrifice both of people who fought to defend us and the ones who went to war in non-combatant roles or who followed their conscience and didn't go at all. I will explain this to people who ask why I'm wearing one or who are hostile.

White poppies can be bought online from the PPU or from some outlets like the Quaker House on Euston Road in London.


  1. TK: Well said. I am not at all hostile to anyone who holds true to their principles. I wear a red poppy but I also salute the obvious bravery of conchies. I would not have had the courage to charge a machine gun nest or set sail in a merchant vessel taking supplies to Murmansk, I know that I would not have been brave enough to be a conchie in 1914. I can feel pride and pathos on Remembrance Sunday but not nearly as much whenever I visit the 'Shot At Dawn' at The National Arboretum in Staffordshire. There is a statue of a 19 year old lad, blindfolded and tied to a post, to be shot for 'Cowardice and Desertion'. He looks so much like my own son - any Father would have taken his place and be proud to do so. War is legalised murder, sometimes it is justified but don't expect all of us to be able to face certain death for the furtherance of 'National Interest'. D

    1. Surely it's not all about the furtherance of National Interest? What do you do - just sit back and take it and hope that you or your family or anybody else for that matter isn't killed or that you won't one day have the Gestapo goose-stepping down your road? Goodness knows enough countries in Europe were invaded and anybody caught resisting or in an act of subterfuge could expect to be strung up in the village square. My parents were from the Midlands - my father from Coventry which was heavily bombed and my mother from Rugby ("We haven't forgotten about you, Rugby" Lord Haw Haw said over the radio apparently). Just exactly who wants war? Who wants to get killed? I grew up with stories of World War II. Both of my parents served their country - I don't see that there is any other way of putting it. Neither of them glorified war and my mother was touched to the end of her life and no doubt my father too although men don't tend to say, do they? I was at a Quaker Meeting recently where somebody gave ministry which included something about war memorials being a sort of glorification or excuse for war. This mean and cowardly testimony is what has near enough convinced me not to go back again. Truth be told, I wear a red and a white poppy and never cease to be moved by the war memorials in even the tiniest of villages.