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Wearing a poppy was a pledge of peace. Now it serves to sanitise war

Ted Harrison

The current buildup of forces by Nato and Russia in eastern Europe is frighteningly reminiscent of the military escalation before the first world war. Either side, at any moment, could find a pretext to turn a dangerous standoff into a fullblown conflict.

It is a well-established tradition to wear a poppy at this time of the year to remember the military victims of war, especially those who fought in the two previous all-embracing conflicts. State ceremonies are held at which well-drilled soldiers solemnly practise the rites of remembrance and members of the royal family, together with politicians past and present, line up to lay wreaths.

Yet, despite the extensive recent retelling of the history of the 1914 war and detailed analysis of its causes, governments appear to have learned nothing. There have been warnings that we may even be on the brink of a third world war.

When the poppy was first adopted as the symbol of remembrance it was shortly after the end of the first world war, when almost every family in the land still felt the raw grief of the time. The poppy represented mourning and regret, and served as a pledge that war must never happen again.

Arguably this original meaning became subverted. By the 1930s, those alarmed at the militarism that had become associated with the Cenotaph rituals started wearing white poppies to reinforce the peace pledge. By 1939, the world was at war again. Another generation signed up, though this time reluctantly, knowing they had to defeat an unprecedented evil, unleashed by the unresolved issues of the first world war that was spreading across Europe.

When remembrance customs continued after 1945, they were little changed – except that on the war memorials up and down the country, a new list of names had been added.

Over the decades, as the memory of both wars began to fade, the the poppy began to take on a subtle new meaning. To many people it had become a patriotic duty to wear one, a symbol of pride in the sacrifices of the armed services. Indeed all those who had ever worn a military uniform had become “heroes”, and the dead were described euphemistically as “having fallen”.

In an utterly unintended way the remembrance customs now serve to sanitise war and even to make the military option a respectable political option.

Judged from the perspective of those first wearers of the poppy – that the red flower should be a declaration of hope that wars should never happen again – the poppy has been a sad failure. What an irony it will be if at 11 o’clock on Remembrance Sunday, British troops on war exercises find themselves wearing poppies and listening to The Last Post as they face Russian troops across eastern Europe.

Today, millions still wear the poppy every autumn, but millions choose not to. It has become a cause of social division as each year the debate is rehearsed as to what the poppy really symbolises, and under what circumstances it is appropriate to display it. The debate this year about whether the England and Scotland football teams should wear poppy armbands illustrates how passionately the arguments are felt and how increasingly polarised views have become.

In two years’ time the world will be marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war. Planning should now begin to use the occasion to revisit and revise the established customs of remembrance in Britain. This would need to be done with care so as not to offend those to whom the current traditions are meaningful, but at the same time refocus the solemn national recollection of, and gratitude towards, those who have died.

I would suggest several changes to the central Cenotaph service, which could be reflected in local ceremonies.

First, that only the Queen, and not politicians, should lay a wreath. This would be on behalf of the nation and the commonwealth. Second, that a simple religious service be held following the two-minute silence. That no troops formally line up in uniform, there is no martial music and no gun fired. Third, that at the end of the service a line of victims of war, such as injured service men, widows, displaced civilians and refugees files past the cenotaph in silence.

It would be appropriate too if next year the annual Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall be held for the last time.

It should not be necessary for a charity to collect money to meet the medical and social needs of those who served in the military. This should be the responsibility of taxpayers. But until the government acknowledges this entire responsibility, poppies will still need to be sold to raise funds. Once the ethos of remembrance is refocused more people will again be able to wear a poppy in conscience, and hopefully the red flower of Flanders Field will once again serve as a pledge of peace.