Remembrance Day: Changing the Metaphor

This year, 2021, marks the centenary of the first appearance in Canada and Britain of the red poppy as the official emblem of war remembrance: a single symbol of sacrifice that has dominated the rites and rhythms of November 11, Armistice Day, each year since.

Anna Guérin

Anna Guérin

The idea of selling artificial poppies to support the millions of Allied veterans, and honor the millions of Allied war dead, was that of Anna Guérin, “The Poppy Lady from France,” herself inspired by what is surely the most influential minor poem ever written, “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian army doctor John McCrae. McCrae died, aged 46, of Spanish flu – spread worldwide by the War – in 1918, three years after his call for the carnage to continue was published in, appropriately, Punch magazine:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing arms we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In his landmark study The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), American critic (and WW2 veteran) Paul Fussell describes his “shock” at fully registering “what the last six lines really are: they are a propaganda argument – words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far – against a negotiated peace.” As for the first nine lines, “the rigorously regular meter with which the poem introduces” the flesh-and-blood flowers – “In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row” – “makes them seem already fabricated of wire and paper.”

Fussell defends his attack – certainly vicious, but far from stupid – by insisting: “I have not broken this butterfly on a wheel for no reason,” but rather to expose its pernicious superficiality, fuel to sustain associated clichés (“The Glorious Dead”) and unexamined claims (“They Died So We Could Be Free”) acting more to induce false memories than inspire a true reckoning with what British Great War poet Siegfried Sassoon called “the world’s worst wound.” Processed and mass-produced, the poppy soon became opium, an hallucinogenic annual ‘high’ of national pride and hero-worship.


It is an interesting exercise to ask what symbols might have been picked from the works of the major war poets, to serve the cause of an authentic, critical remembrance refusing to lump all wars, warriors and causes into the same fundraising (and recruitment-tool) basket.

If Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) – whose subject was “the pity of war” – was our alternate-universe McCrae, perhaps instead of cheering fly-overs and gun-salutes we’d recoil from “the monstrous anger of the guns” and “the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” brutally punctuating his “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” If we had adopted Sassoon (1886-1967) as our poet laureate of remembrance, instead of the poppy we’d have to confront (in the poem “To His Dead Body“) the “red-faced father God who lit your mind.” And if we picked the lesser-known Charles Sorley – dead at 20 the year McCrae penned his ‘immortal’ lines – we would have these culturally subversive ‘orders’ to follow, found scribbled in pencil in his uniform:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.

“Give them not praise,” Sorley implores: “Nor tears. … Nor honor.” For just as “it is easy to be dead,” it is easy to forget the real and only ‘victor’ of the War –

Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.


In 1933, the Women’s Cooperative Guild in the UK courageously produced a white ‘peace poppy’ to counter the sublimation of slaughter affected by red poppy ritualism; and since 1936, the Peace Pledge Union has distributed white poppies across Britain and beyond.

Women's Cooperative Guild laying white poppy wreath.

Members of the Co-operative Womens Guild laying a wreath of white poppies at the Cenotaph Armistice Day 1937

But we could still keep the red poppy, if we wished, only this time the one Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) picked from a parapet to “stick behind my ear” in “Break of Day in the Trenches.” In Fussell’s opinion “the greatest poem of the war,” its “loose but accurate emotional cadences” – eschewing all regimentation of meter (or thought) – “acutely” anticipate the modern verse of, in particular, T.S. Eliot, in whose Wasteland (1922) we can almost see Rosenberg crouching, asking “a queer sardonic rat” what it makes of the “strong arms” and “fine limbs” of those “haughty athletes/Less chanced than you for life,/Bonds to the whims of murder,/Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,/The torn fields of France.” The poem closes by creating an ironically false sense of security, a pocket of peace in the maelstrom:

Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

That’s all: no way out, no way back, ‘just a little’ time to savor, a chat with the rats, an anti-hero with a flower in his hair, the slightly floury poppy the farthest thing imaginable from a battle cry or torch to prize. As George Eliot wrote in The Mill on the Floss, her powerful protest against the sacrifice of youthful passion:

It is astonishing what a different result one gets by changing the metaphor!


Featured image: Charles Sorley, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Own, Siegfried Sassoon


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.