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In My Words: Poppies for War and Peace: 100 years since the end of World War I

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of English Rosemary Haskell writes about the significance of poppies in remembering the dead and hoping for peace. The column was published by WRAL, The Virginian-Pilot and the Greenville Daily Reflector

By Rosemary Haskell

As World War I entered what would be its final year, Vera Brittain, an English nurse in France battered and terrified by the German spring offensive of March 1918, walked out of her mobile hospital tent. She glimpsed a strange scene.  

“I had to wait to let a large contingent of troops march past me,” she wrote in her memoir, “Testament of Youth.” “They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers … and an unusual quality of bold vigour in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest. They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall straight figures were in vivid contrast to the under-sized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed.” 

She wondered, were they “Tommies in heaven? … They moved with such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect.”  

After a fellow nurse cried, “Look! Look! Here are the Americans!” Brittain understood. “So these were our deliverers at last … a formidable bulwark against the peril looming from Amiens,” she wrote.

The American Expeditionary Force commanded by General John Pershing had come to save the day. Horrific U.S. casualties in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in the fall of 1918 preceded the Armistice, which launched the peace at the eleventh hour of Nov. 11 — one hundred years ago this month.

But after that November day came the decades-long task of remembering and, bizarrely, celebrating all those dead soldiers. They were permanently consecrated through civic and religious ceremonies, often featuring red poppies.  

The United States soon adopted this flower tradition, building on Canadian  John McRae’s poem — “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses row on row.” Poppy iconography acquired new meaning as a blood-red symbol of fragile life and of the sweet oblivion of the painless sleep of death.

Blooming amid trench-riddled desolation, these poppies both explained and redeemed a sterile wasteland. A century later, that blasted landscape of Belgium and France still turns up bones, brass buttons, shell casings and even the occasional live explosive.  

Since the 1920s, the old British empire countries especially have codified the red paper poppy as the sign of Great War remembrance. In London on “Remembrance Sunday” in the Albert Hall, hundreds of thousands of red paper petals, a cascade of disappeared lives, will fall from the ceiling, showering the faces beneath. Politicians in Britain and Canada won’t dare to appear in public without the requisite lapel adornment.

I’ve got nothing against the poppy. I have a sentimental attachment to it and wear one when I can get one. It leads me into the past.

It paradoxically breathes life into the vanished dead. It connects me with my English grandfathers and grandmothers, whose lives were variously shaped by what they encountered from 1914 through 1918. After years of war and wounds, the life of my father’s father lapsed into shell-shocked disarray from which it never recovered. His wife and children had to struggle along, in the backwash of his suffering.

But the white poppy, proffered in the UK in 1936 as a Peace Pledge Union alternative to the “red” celebration of military death, now appears to be gaining new ground: hope for a future without war.
We should embrace that future. Instead of celebrating the dead with such fervor, why not pledge ourselves to a hundred years of peace? 

Those American troops who inspired the young English nurse with such hope in the spring of 1918, and all the other dead millions, deserve this commitment.

And, as the United States wrangles strangely with old and new allies, re-thinking agreements about trade, weapons and climate, the nation could do worse than wear the white poppy this November, perhaps along with the red. Thus we might commemorate a time when a strong and generous nation went to the aid of its allies, while also gesturing toward a time when such sacrifice will not be needed.

I will wear a red poppy on Nov. 11, 2018. And if I can also find a white one, I will wear them both.         

Owen Covington,
11/12/2018 9:00 AM