In the weeks preceding and briefly following November 11, Britain is awash with red cardboard and plastic poppies. To anyone who has lived in the UK, the symbolism and the emotion surrounding these is palpable and ubiquitous. Deviation is unusual, and open rejection is even rarer.
Which is why it was such a shock that on November 8 the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) declined to financially support the Royal British Legion in its efforts to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Not only did they eschew the poppy distributing charity, but they went on to surprise the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) giving them £95,800 to support their efforts in commemorating the 16,000 conscientious objectors from the war, and promoting non-violent conflict resolution in the future.
Controversially, this commemoration involves the sale of white poppies. Jan Melichar, a member of the PPU had this to say: "They [the HLF] got in touch with us and invited us to apply, so we did. In a way, it was a surprise [to receive the funds]."
The PPU and their aims may not be so widely known in Britain, but in Canada their activities have caused something of an open stir this year. The website 'Ceasefire.ca' has been encouraging Canadians to wear white poppies as a symbol of peace. The response in public opinion has been that the red poppy should be seen as an all-encompassing symbol of remembrance and that the white poppy is disrespectful to the sacrifices made by those who responded to the call to fight without resistance.
There is no danger that in the UK this particular failure to donate will result in the First World War receiving inadequate coverage or remembrance in the 2014 centenary. Not only has the hardware chain B&Q stepped in to fill the financial gap that the HLF left behind, but spokespeople from the fund have said that in the course of all their other donations, they will be providing £34 million to various other remembrance projects. It's just this particular project, a plan to seed millions of poppies all across the UK, wasn't deemed as being sufficiently worthy for the HLF to donate its money. Even the support of PM David Cameron himself wasn't enough to win the HLF's favour.
The question raised by those like former Royal Artilleryman Graham Mentor-Morris, who called the HLF's decision a lack of respect, and accused the HLF of supporting the 'trendy things', is more one of aptness of the celebration rather than opposing what the white poppy stands for. None have seriously argued that the conscientious objectors are somehow unworthy of respect. Standing up for one's belief in a non-violent world to the point of imprisonment is something that should be celebrated and should be remembered. The question is whether, in celebrating them at the same time as the wider war dead, there is some potential to detract from a broader theme of remembrance for all.
Looking back to 1918 it's hard not to see the objectors as having a point. Millions of lives were lost and relatively little changed for the better. When violence doesn't accomplish anything important people will rightly shy away from it. But in giving the objectors a special status, are we saying that those who fell in with the warring masses somehow made a mistake? That may not be the PPU's intention, but the potential for such offence is definitely being felt. This on top of a sentiment that it doesn't seem at all apt to talk about future non-violence when we're remembering violence that has already happened. Statements to the effect that the war shouldn't have happened, and nor should any future wars, ring hollow to people trying to appreciate what was given for their freedom on a day of remembrance.
This is the core issue. Remembrance day is not a celebration of military service. It is not an attempt to glorify war or to somehow turn death in battle into anything other than a terrible tragedy. Those who are remembered by the white poppy, and the call of their modern descendants for a peaceful and more harmonious world is a noble one. But on the day of remembrance, they should allow space to let all of those who were lost have their silence.