Remembrance Day poppies: what do different poppy colours mean and why do people wear them?

As soon as November begins, the UK finds a sea of red poppies springing up all across it.

Wednesday, 6th November 2019, 3:45 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th November 2019, 12:49 pm

They appear even more frequently as Remembrance Day approaches, as wreaths of them are laid at war memorials across the country.

In amongst them, there will also be some white and black versions of the flower.

However, there remains much debate as to what exactly the red poppy signifies, and whether refusing to wear one or wearing different coloured poppies is disrespectful.

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row". Picture: Shutterstock

The passion the issue evokes is clear each time someone appears on television without one in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day.

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Why do some people wear red poppies?

The tradition of wearing red poppies on Remembrance Day has its origins in John McCrae's 1915 poem, In Flanders Fields, which describes the poppies growing between the crosses marking the graves of fallen soldiers.

Respectful remembrance or partisan war-mongering? The debate continues. Picture: Shutterstock

In his war poem, the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel wrote that "In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row"

The American academic Moina Michael then worked to have the poppy recognised as the official symbol of Remembrance in the US, working with those in the UK, Australia and Canada to do the same.

In 1921, a French woman named Anna Guérin met with the Royal British Legion, a charity which provides support to British veterans and their families, and persuaded them to take on the poppy as their symbol.

They agreed, purchasing nine million poppies and selling them to raise over £100,000.

Even the white poppy, designed as a symbol of peace, has come under fire in recent times. Picture: Shutterstock

To date, the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal has brought in over £3 billion – or over one pound per second since the war ended.

Why do some people choose not to wear a poppy?

While the Royal British Legion has always maintained that the red poppy “is a symbol of peace inclusive of all regardless of race, belief, origin, or sexual/gender identity...and is above partisan and political interpretation”, many do not believe this to be the case.

With its specific ties to the military, the red poppy is seen by many as a symbol that glamorises the war, rather than commemorating the dead. It’s also been suggested that politicians have exploited the poppy to justify further wars.

For those with ties to places in which the British Army has committed acts of violence against civilians in recent memory, this can be seen as particularly troubling.

Why do some people wear white poppies?

The white poppy was launched in 1933 as a symbol to mourn the dead while emphasising the “never-again” message, which was feared to have been lost amidst militaristic commemorations.

In modern times, white poppies have been distributed by the UK's pacifist charity, the Peace Pledge Union. They have proven especially popular recently – around 100,000 are sold each year.

However, these poppies have become as controversial as the red ones, with many claiming that anything but a red poppy undermines the impact of Remembrance Day.

What other colours of poppy do people wear?

Black poppies have been used to specifically commemorate the sacrifices of black, African and Caribbean people, which are commonly overlooked.

Previously, there were also purple poppies, supplied by Animal Aid in remembrance of the animal lives lost in war, but they were discontinued after the charity concluded that their message was becoming distorted.

While they do not supply them, the Royal British Legion has also made clear that it fully supports the wearing of all colours of poppy.

And this year, The Mirror reported that a woman who posted an image on Twitter of a rainbow-coloured poppy to commemorate gay soldiers sparked debate, with one user commenting: “A poppy is red, it's not multi-coloured and it represents our heroes, men, women, gay, straight. I've said this before, leave the poppy alone!!!"