When Canadian military doctor John McCrae sat down to write a poem on the edge of a battlefield in May 1915, he could have had no idea how far the echoes of his words would spread. What he wrote – the now legendary In Flanders Fields – fashioned a symbol of remembrance for his fellow soldiers, felled in war.
Until then, the poppy was more associated with the opium trade. Thereafter, it came to represent those lost in war, far from the basic comforts of life, love, and happiness.
Today, more than a century later, the poppy lies at the centre of another conflict, played out largely on the borders of football fields.
FIFA has announced, once again, that it considers the poppy to be a political symbol. And its rules prohibit players from wearing symbols for political, religious, commercial, or personal statements. The football associations of England and Scotland have vowed to defy the ruling and will send players onto the pitch on Armistice Day wearing black armbands with poppy emblems.
Even though few could argue that the poppy is not worn as a personal statement of remembrance, many people in England especially appear to be surprised that the poppy is seen as political.
Across the water in Ireland, though, the debate over its symbolism has been raging for decades. Many Northern Irish unionists see the poppy as theirs, representing those who died for their freedom. Many nationalists see the poppy as representing the army that denied them independence in the 1920s and that returned in the late 1960s, bringing with it such events as Bloody Sunday.
For them and others, the poppy is not a universal or unifying symbol. It is seen as a celebration and remembrance of Britain’s dead, Britain’s victories, and Britain’s freedom.
As long as that British nationalism is attached to the poppy, it will remain a divisive symbol. If the poppy solely represented remembrance of the two great wars then it could more easily be detached from contemporary politics. Of course it would still be a personal statement, as it should be because for the vast majority of British people the wearing of a poppy is deeply entwined with family memories, and recalling the sacrifice of fallen ancestors.
For that reason, nobody should be put under pressure to wear a poppy – as happens today in football and in the broadcast media. The men who died in World War I, and especially the battalions made up of footballers, could never have believed in the present day practice of pressuring players to wear the poppy on their shirts. This reduces the power of the flower as a symbol of remembrance, and is a distraction from what the poppy is supposed to represent – a deep and considered moment of reflection about the horrors of war, and the suffering that comes from seeing friends and comrades sacrificed. The act of wearing a poppy should be a voluntary gesture.
As people don their poppies at this time of year, there is very little mention of the ambitions of the original First World War veterans – to fight the war that would end all wars. Today that phrase is almost absent from discussions about whether or not the poppy is a political symbol. The historical context has been drowned out in nationalistic clamour.
Even if it were more widely debated, wearing a poppy would still be political. The belief in ending all wars is as much a political belief as accepting war as a natural condition of our human existence. You need only look at the hostility some people face for wearing a white poppy – a mark of pacifist remembrance.
There are more layers to this poppy issue than simply red or white, political or apolitical, remembrance or celebration of war. Perhaps from a cultural perspective, the problem is not so much what poppies themselves denote, but the connotations that different groups of people attach to them. I believe that each person’s wearing of a poppy is a personal act, and unfortunately because it is so personal it is not allowed in sporting competition under the existing set of laws.
Whether the rules around political symbolism in sport need to change is a whole other debate. That has been going on since the raised fists of the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute, which still resonates today and has directly influenced many of the activities around the Black Lives Matter movement. Unlike that debate, which has been going on for decades and seems set to continue, the contention over poppies in football seems to fade once November passes.
Perhaps that’s the real tragedy of this whole discussion, because we seem to have forgotten what started the tradition of wearing poppies in the first place, and how John McCrae’s words were intended to echo down through the generations – not just for a few vitriolic weeks each year. I believe that the poppy should be worn with true conviction on one day of the year, when everyone recalls that aspiration of an end to all wars.