My Monday morning double lessons with year 11 are devoted to poetry. Over the past few weeks, we’ve moved through a striking cross-section of twentieth-century attitudes to war within AQA’s ‘Power and Conflict’ anthology: we’ve seen the chaos of war in Ted Hughes’s Bayonet Charge, the yearning of displaced people for home in Carole Rumens’ The Emigree, and the painful remembrance that war demands in Jane Weir’s Poppies. To my mind, it is one of the few things that the pale, male and stale English Literature GCSE gets right: students learn that war pulls in people many miles from its front lines, and they encounter diverse perspectives on its echoing horrors.
It is frustrating, then, to see such homogeneity of perspectives surrounding how we introduce children to Remembrance Day. Every year, schoolchildren come face-to-face with a crimson sea of poppies that rises up between the end of October half term and Remembrance Sunday, and the volume and variety of poppy displays has proliferated almost to the point of absurdity.
In that frantic week and a half, the easiest option for schools is to re-tread the familiar ground of collective remembrance through sombre assemblies, two minutes’ silence at 11 o’clock on Armistice Day and a poppy-box for the Royal British Legion at the front desk. The result is almost hagiographic: despite commemorating only soldiers’ deaths in battle (when up to 90 per cent of war dead are civilians), the red poppy is the only icon of remembrance that students encounter.
The red poppy is a crucial part of cohering our collective remembrance into a sense of national sacrifice. But presenting it to children as the only valid form of commemoration is a missed opportunity. Alongside the red poppy, staff and students could be given the opportunity to buy and wear poppies of different colours.
The white poppy produced by the Peace Pledge Union has been around since 1933. It commemorates all victims of war and raises funds for nonviolent conflict resolution campaigns. The Black Poppy Rose Campaign highlights the contributions that soldiers from BIPOC communities make to active service. There’s even a Purple Poppy campaign to honour animals lost in service. Framing the red poppy as one of a number of ways to commemorate those lost in war prevents remembrance from becoming monopolised by hectoring, nationalistic voices bent on harassment who perceive alternative views as ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘hijacking’ the narrative.
Increasing the visibility of more diverse perspectives generates fresh conversations about why some teachers or students might choose not to wear the red poppy, a topic that feels particularly pertinent this year. The appalling and chaotic British retreat from Afghanistan has seen many Afghan children start afresh in British schools. As well as buying them laptops, it might be worth inviting students to consider how these refugees feel when confronted with iconography that supports British war efforts unconditionally.
Moreover, the red poppy should raise conversations with students surrounding the role of the state in looking after those who serve it. What sort of country has money for invasion, but not for veteran support? And why are the charities the MoD leaves to pick up the pieces sitting on over £1.5 billion while thousands of veterans endure poverty, homelessness and crime and prisoners make red poppies for pitiful wages?
Finally, students could see the Poppy Appeal as part of an ongoing tension between the pacifist origins of remembrance and the modern military-industrial complex. If the British remembrance tradition was informed by the horror of ‘the war to end all wars’, why do the Cabinet ministers sporting a red poppy at the Cenotaph pave the way for warlike regimes through enthusiastic support of the UK arms trade?
Wearing my white poppy around school this week has led to more fulfilling conversations with students and staff about remembrance than any year when I wore a red one. Far from alienating me from the remembrance tradition, it’s made me feel more involved. Opening up the conversation around how we commemorate the war dead isn’t an act of dissent or ingratitude, it’s a validation of the very ideals our soldiers fought for, and that’s what I want my students to remember.