The white poppy was introduced in 1933 by the British Women’s Cooperative Guild as a pacifist alternative to the British Legion’s annual red poppy appeal.
Now produced and distributed by the Peace Pledge Union, the white poppy is intended to commemorate the victims of all wars, both civilian and military, and not only those conflicts in which British Armed Forces took part. It is also meant as a commitment to peace and a refusal to glamorise war.
Although some have been critical of the white poppy for showing a perceived lack of respect or gratitude for the sacrifices of war veterans, Baroness Jenny Jones in 2017 summed up her motivation for wearing a red and a white poppy together, by pointing out that it was possible to honour the dead and at the same time seek to avoid the mistakes that killed them.
Origins of Poppy Day
The British Legion was formed in 1921 as a merger of four organisations set up in the wake of the First World War: the Comrades of the Great War, the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers, and the Officers’ Association. Its purpose was to provide support to those who had suffered as a result of their service in that war, whether by being a member of the Armed Forces or by having lost a family member who had served in the military. Of the more than six million British men who had served in the war, 725,000 were killed and 1.75 million had suffered some kind of disability, half of them permanent.
The invention of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance was the brainchild of an American schoolteacher, Moina Belle Michael. By chance, on a trip to France in 1918 she came across John McCraes’ poem “In Flanders Fields” in a copy of the Ladies Home Journal. But it was the accompanying colour illustration of ghostly soldiers rising from a field of poppies that captured her imagination, and made her resolve to dedicate her life to “that crimson cup flower of Flanders, the red Poppy which caught the sacrificial blood of ten million men dying for the Peace of the World”.
The idea was picked up enthusiastically by a French woman, Anna E. Guérin, who had begun making artificial poppies in Paris soon after the end of the war.[a]Guérin’s silk poppies were handmade by French war widows from the battlefields of France. She campaigned to have veterans and their families wear her silk poppies in honour of the French war dead, but her ambition was to have the red poppy adopted as a worldwide symbol of remembrance. In August 1921 she visited the British Legion in London to show them her poppies, and they quickly adopted the idea, ordering nine million of Guérin’s poppies for the first British Poppy Day, held on 11 November 1921.
There was also a body of feeling among some war veterans that the government had hijacked the remembrance poppy as a symbol of military might. Such was the motivation for the formation in 1921 of the No More War Movement, which emerged from the wartime No Conscription Fellowship and soon merged with the international War Resisters Movement. In 1926 one member suggested that the movement should produce its own white poppies as an alternative to the red, with its black centre inscribed “No More War”.
Although the crimson red poppy may seem like an obvious symbol of remembrance today, it was not universally regarded as such initially. Unveiling a war memorial at Windsor in November 1921 Lieutenant-General G. M. MacDonagh expressed his impassioned view that the poppy is “a pagan flower, it was the emblem of the dead and the last thing they wanted to do was to forget them”. Part of the initial confusion was over whether the poppy being used to promote the remembrance of the war dead was a corn poppy or an opium poppy, both of which were abundant in England. Opium poppies were in common use in all kinds of folk medicines, and readily available for sale. The poppy therefore had two faces: one of oblivion, the other of remembrance.
British Women’s Co-operative Guild
The British Women’s Co-operative Guild (WCG) was formed in 1883, and by 1914 was focusing its efforts on the war, first of all by opposing hostilities and then by providing support for those women who had family members at the front. At the war’s end, the guild turned its attention to campaigning for international peace.
In 1933 the WCG revived the No More War Movement’s idea of a white poppy. The guild stressed that their new poppy commemorated the victims of all conflicts, both civilian and military, and was not just an expression of an anti-war sentiment. The following year the British Legion passed a motion at its national conference that all its members should be “discouraged by all possible means” from wearing the white poppy. The WCG sought support from the newly formed Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in their conflict with the British Legion, resulting in the PPU’s adoption of the white poppy in 1936, when it began to manufacture and distribute the flowers, as it still does today.
Peace Pledge Union
To counter a widespread belief that only women were pacifists, Canon Dick Sheppard of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, London, wrote a letter to the press, published on 16 October 1934, urging men to pledge that they would never again support war:
I renounce war and will never support or sanction another
There was an immediate response of 135,000 members of his newly formed Dr H.R.L. Sheppard’s Peace Movement, which two years later changed its name to the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) and allowed women to join.
As of 2017, about 100,000 white poppies are sold annually in the UK, according to the PPU. Despite the British Legion’s stated view that it “defends the right to wear different poppies” it has refused to sell white poppies alongside its red ones. Both red and white poppies continue to evoke strong responses from the British public, with some such as Conservative Member of Parliament Johnny Mercer calling white poppies “attention seeking rubbish”, the wearers of which should be ignored. Others such as Green Party peer Jenny Jones have given a more measured response. In 2017 she tweeted that she would wear both a white and a red poppy: “Remember the dead, but don’t repeat the mistakes that killed them”.