Lest We Remember: Poppy Proliferation and British Commemoration in 2017

Research output: Contribution to non-peer-reviewed publicationInternet publication


grew up in a country that was fundamentally transformed by the First World War but where there was no popular or political interest in remembering the conflict. People were constantly, obsessively aware of the past, but their understanding of it was selective and they didn’t really ‘come together’ to remember anything. Those who wore poppies did so discreetly, behind the closed doors of Protestant churches and schools. So when I first started coming to Britain – about fifteen years ago now – I was quite struck by what appeared to be a genuinely unifying national force. The annual wearing of the poppy seemed to transcend political, cultural, regional and racial divisions. As such, it seemed like a truly ‘British’ custom. I don’t wear a poppy myself and I remain ambivalent about the real meaning of the symbol, but I have been impressed, as an outsider, by the dignity, and the genuine unity, with which the British have traditionally remembered their dead. I realise now that many people probably always felt alienated in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, and also that the wearing of the poppy became much more of a public obligation after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the great majority of people who wear the poppy do so because they want to express solidarity both with their ancestors and with the servicemen and women of today. They certainly shouldn’t be condemned for this. But nor should those who don’t feel comfortable wearing the poppy, for whatever reason. The stakes are perhaps higher in Northern Ireland, but commemoration of the past has clearly become quite a contentious issue in Britain too. Remembrance doesn’t have to be divisive, but if we treat it as a parade or a civic duty, it most certainly will be.
Original languageEnglish
Specialist publicationHistorians for History
Publication statusPublished - 9 Nov 2017

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