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The remembrance poppy (a Papaver rhoeas) has been used since 1921 to commemorate soldiers who have died in war. Inspired by the World War I poem "In Flanders Fields", they were first used by the American Legion to commemorate American soldiers killed in that war (1914–1918). They were then adopted by military veterans' groups in parts of the former British Empire: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Today, they are mainly used in the UK and throughout the Commonwealth to commemorate their servicemen and women killed in all conflicts since 1914. Small artificial poppies are often worn on clothing for a few weeks prior to Remembrance Day/Armistice Day (11 November). Poppy wreaths are also often laid at war memorials.
The remembrance poppy is especially prominent in the UK. In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, they are distributed by The Royal British Legion in return for donations to their "Poppy Appeal", which supports all current and former British military personnel. During this time, it is an unwritten rule that all public figures and people appearing on television must wear them; newsreader Jon Snow berated this as "poppy fascism" and argued that the Appeal is being used to glorify current wars. It is especially controversial in Northern Ireland; most Irish nationalists and Irish Catholics refuse to wear one, mainly due to actions of the British Army during the Troubles, while Ulster Protestants and Unionists usually wear them.
The use of the poppy was inspired by the World War I poem "In Flanders Fields". Its opening lines refer to the many poppies that were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up earth of soldiers' graves in Flanders, a region of Europe that overlies a part of Belgium. The poem was written by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on 3 May 1915 after witnessing the death of his friend, a fellow soldier, the day before. The poem was first published on 8 December 1915 in the London-based magazine Punch.
In 1918, American YWCA worker Moina Michael, inspired by the poem, published a poem of her own called "We Shall Keep the Faith". In tribute to McCrae's poem, she vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war. At a November 1918 YWCA Overseas War Secretaries' conference, she appeared with a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed 25 more to those attending. She then campaigned to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol of remembrance. At a conference in 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance. At this conference, Frenchwoman Anna E. Guérin was inspired to introduce the artificial poppies commonly used today. In 1921 she sent her poppy sellers to London, where they were adopted by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, a founder of the Royal British Legion. It was also adopted by veterans' groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
In Canada, the poppy is the official symbol of remembrance worn during the two weeks before 11 November, having been adopted in 1921. The Royal Canadian Legion, which has trademarked the image, suggests that poppies be worn on the left lapel, or as near the heart as possible.
Until 1996, poppies were made by disabled veterans in Canada, but they have since been made by a private contractor. The Canadian poppies consist of two pieces of moulded plastic covered with flocking with a pin to fasten them to clothing. At first the poppies were made with a black centre. From 1980 to 2002, the centres were changed to green. Current designs are black only; this change caused confusion and controversy to those unfamiliar with the original design. In 2007, sticker versions of the poppy were made for children, the elderly, and healthcare and food industry workers. Canada also issues a cast metal "Canada Remembers" pin featuring a gold maple leaf and two poppies, one representing the fallen and the other representing those who remained on the home front.
Following the installation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa in 2000, where the national Remembrance service is held, a new tradition formed spontaneously as attendees laid their poppies on the tomb at the end of the service. This tradition, while not part of the official program, has become widely practised elsewhere in the country, with others leaving cut flowers, photographs, or letters to the deceased.]
In the United Kingdom, remembrance poppies are sold by The Royal British Legion (RBL). This is a charity providing financial, social, political and emotional support to those who have served or who are currently serving in the British Armed Forces, and their dependants. They are sold on the streets by volunteers in the weeks before Remembrance Day. Other products bearing the Poppy, the Trademark of The Royal British Legion are sold throughout the year as part of the ongoing fundraising. The RBL state, "The red poppy is our registered mark and its only lawful use is to raise funds for the Poppy Appeal"; its yearly fundraising drive in the weeks before Remembrance Day. The RBL says these poppies are "worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today".
In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the poppies have two red paper petals, a green paper leaf and are mounted on a green plastic stem. In Scotland, the poppies are curled and have four petals with no leaf. The yearly selling of poppies is a major source of income for the RBL in the UK. The poppy has no fixed price; it is sold for a donation or the price may be suggested by the seller. The black plastic center of the poppy was marked "Haig Fund" until 1994 but is now marked "Poppy Appeal". A team of about 50 people—most of them disabled former British military personnel—work all year round to make millions of poppies at the Poppy Factory in Richmond. Scottish poppies are made in the Lady Haig Poppy Factory in Edinburgh.
In the early years after World War I, poppies were worn only on Remembrance Day itself. However, today the RBL's "Poppy Appeal" has a higher profile than any other charity appeal in the UK. The poppies are widespread from late October until mid-November every year and are worn by the general public, politicians, the Royal Family and others in public life. It has also become common to see poppies on cars, lorries and public transport such as aeroplanes, buses, and trams. Many magazines and newspapers also show a poppy on their cover page, and some social network users add poppies to their avatars. In 2011, a Second World War plane dropped 6,000 poppies over the town of Yeovil in Somerset.
Some have criticised the level of compulsion associated with the custom, something Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow has called "poppy fascism". Columnist Dan O'Neill wrote that "presenters and politicians seem to compete in a race to be first – poppies start sprouting in mid-October while the absence of a poppy is interpreted as absence of concern for the war dead, almost as an unpatriotic act of treachery". Likewise, Jonathan Bartley of the religious think-tank Ekklesia said "public figures in Britain are urged, indeed in many cases, required, to wear ... the red poppy, almost as an article of faith. There is a political correctness about the red poppy". Journalist Robert Fisk complained that the poppy has become a seasonal "fashion accessory" and that people were "ostentatiously wearing a poppy for social or work-related reasons, to look patriotic when it suited them". Kleshna, one of two businesses with an exclusive tie-in with the RBL, sells expensive crystal-clad poppy jewellery that has been worn by celebrities. In 1997 and again in 2000 the Royal British Legion registered the Poppy under Intellectual Property Rights (1997 Case EU000557058) and Trade Mark (2000 Trade Mark 2239583).
The Royal British Legion also holds a yearly poppy appeal in Northern Ireland and in 2009 raised more than £1 million. However, the wearing of poppies in Northern Ireland is controversial. It is seen by many as a political symbol and a symbol of Britishness, representing support for the British Army. The poppy has long been the preserve of the unionist/loyalist community. Loyalist paramilitaries (such as the UVF and UDA) have also used poppies to commemorate their own members who were killed in The Troubles.
Most Irish nationalists/republicans, and members of the Irish Catholic community, choose not to wear poppies; they regard the Poppy Appeal as supporting soldiers who killed Irish civilians (for example on Bloody Sunday) and who colluded with illegal loyalist paramilitaries (for example the Glenanne gang) during The Troubles. In 2008, the director of Relatives for Justice condemned the wearing of poppies by police officers in Irish nationalist areas, calling it "repugnant and offensive to the vast majority of people within our community, given the role of the British Army". In 2009, Sinn Féin's Glenn Campbell berated the policy that all BBC TV presenters must wear poppies in the run-up to Remembrance Day and urged the BBC to drop the policy, as it is a publicly funded body. In the Irish Independent, it was claimed that "substantial amounts" of money raised from selling poppies are used "to build monuments to insane or inane generals or build old boys' clubs for the war elite". However, on Remembrance Day 2010 the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie was the first leader of a nationalist party to wear one.
During World War I, all of Ireland was part of the UK and about 200,000 Irishmen fought in the British Army (see Ireland and World War I). Although the British Army is banned from actively recruiting in the Republic of Ireland, some of its citizens still enlist. The RBL thus has a branch in the Republic and holds a yearly Poppy Appeal there.
Each July, the Republic has its own National Day of Commemoration for all Irish people who died in war. However, the wearing of poppies is much less common than in the UK and they are not part of the main commemorations. This is partly due to the British Army's role in fighting against Irish independence, its activities during the War of Independence (for example the Burning of Cork) and the British Army's role in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Nevertheless, the RBL holds its own wreath-laying ceremony at St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, which the President of Ireland has attended.
In the United States, the Veterans of Foreign Wars conducted the first nationwide distribution of remembrance poppies before Memorial Day in 1922. Today, the American Legion Auxiliary distributes crepe-paper poppies in exchange for donations around Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
In Hong Kong—which was formerly part of the British Empire—the poppy is worn by some participants on Remembrance Sunday each year. It is not generally worn by the public, although The Royal British Legion's Hong Kong and China Branch sells poppies to the public in a few places on the Hong Kong Island only.
During Victory Day 2014—which marks Nazi Germany's surrender to the Soviet Union—some Ukrainians wore remembrance poppies instead of the usual Ribbon of Saint George, as the ribbon had become associated with pro-Russian separatists. A poppy logo was designed by Sergiy Mishakin, containing the text: "1939-1945 Never Again".
In Pakistan, in Northern Punjab and a few parts of the North-West Frontier (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), a private ceremony is celebrated each 11 November where red poppies are worn, by direct descendants of World War 1 veterans from the old British Indian Army belonging to these parts; these people belong to the 'Great War Company', a non-governmental, non-profit organisation.
In Albania, government representatives including Prime-Minister Edi Rama, Speaker of the House Ilir Meta, and Minister of Defense Mimi Kodheli, wore the Remembrance Poppy during the commemoration ceremonies for the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Albania, in November 2014.
Some people choose to wear white poppies as a pacifist alternative to the red poppy. The white poppy and white poppy wreaths were introduced by Britain's Co-operative Women's Guild in 1933. Today, white poppies are sold by Peace Pledge Union or may be home-made.
To commemorate animal victims of war, Animal Aid in Britain has issued a purple poppy, which can be worn alongside the traditional red one, as a reminder that both humans and animals have been – and continue to be – victims of war.
In the run-up to Remembrance Day, it has become common for UK football teams to play with artificial poppies sewn to their shirts, at the request of the Royal British Legion. This has caused some controversy. At a Celtic v Aberdeen match in November 2010, a group of Celtic supporters, called the Green Brigade, unfurled a large banner in protest at the team wearing poppies. In a statement, it said: "Our group and many within the Celtic support do not recognise the British Armed Forces as heroes, nor their role in many conflicts as one worthy of our remembrance". It gave Operation Banner (Northern Ireland), the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War as examples. In November 2011, it was proposed that the England football team should wear poppies on their shirts in a match against Spain. However, FIFA turned down the proposal, saying it would "open the door to similar initiatives" across the world, "jeopardising the neutrality of football". FIFA's decision was attacked by Prince William and Prime Minister David Cameron, who said he would back any player who ignored the ban. Members of the English Defence League (EDL) held a protest on the roof of FIFA's headquarters in Zurich. Instead, the English Football Association came up with other ways to mark Remembrance Day; for example, the England players would wear poppies before kickoff and black armbands during the match, there would be a minute's silence, a poppy wreath would be set on the pitch during the national anthems, poppies would be sold in the stadium and would be shown on the scoreboards and advertising boards. FIFA subsequently allowed the English, Scottish and Welsh teams to wear poppies on black armbands. Irish footballer James McClean, who has played for a number of English teams, has received death threats and abuse since 2012 for refusing to wear a poppy on his shirt during matches. McClean is from Derry, where British soldiers shot dead 14 unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday.
Other public figures have also been attacked for not wearing poppies. British journalist and newsreader Charlene White has faced racist and sexist abuse for not wearing a poppy on-screen. She explained "I prefer to be neutral and impartial on screen so that one of those charities doesn't feel less favoured than another". Newsreader Jon Snow does not wear a poppy on-screen for similar reasons. He too was criticized and he condemned what he saw as "poppy fascism". Well-known war-time journalist Robert Fisk published in November 2011 a personal account about the shifting nature of wearing a poppy, titled "Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?".
British Prime Minister David Cameron rejected a request from Chinese officials to remove his poppy during his visit to Beijing on Remembrance Day 2010. The poppy was deemed offensive because of its association with the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars in the 19th century, after which the Qing Dynasty was forced to tolerate the British opium trade in China and to cede Hong Kong to the UK.
A 2010 Remembrance Day ceremony in London was disrupted by members of Muslims Against Crusades, who were protesting against British Army actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. They burnt large poppies and chanted "British soldiers burn in hell" during the two-minute silence. Two of the men were arrested and charged for threatening behaviour. One was convicted and fined £50. The same group planned to hold another protest in 2011, but was banned by the Home Secretary the day before the planned protest.
In recent years, people have been arrested in the UK for burning remembrance poppies. In November 2011 a number of people were arrested in Northern Ireland after a picture of two youths burning a poppy was posted on Facebook. The picture was reported to police by a member of the RBL. The following year, a young Canterbury man was arrested for allegedly posting a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook, on suspicion of an offence under the Malicious Communications Act.
In 2011 it was revealed that Kleshna, one of two businesses selling its own poppies on the RBL website, gives only 10% of its sales to charity. Kleshna sells crystal-clad poppy jewellery which has been worn by celebrities on television.