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100 Years of “Poppy Day” in the United Kingdom

The following is a guest post by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, a senior foreign law specialist at the Law Library of Congress covering the United Kingdom and several other jurisdictions. Clare has written numerous posts for In Custodia Legis, including Weird Laws, or Urban Legends?FALQs: Brexit Referendum; and The UK’s Legal Response to the London Bombings of 7/7.

Poppies. Photo by flickruser hannasabel. (July 3, 2010), used under creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month – we will remember them.”

One hundred years ago tomorrow, on November 11, 1921, the first poppy day occurred in Britain. At that time, First World War had been over for three years and the United Kingdom (UK) was in the middle of an economic recession that saw two million people unemployed. Over six million British men served in the First World War; 700,000 died while serving, and of those who returned 1.75 million had sustained a disability, with over half of these men being permanently disabled. A large number of unemployed people during the recession were ex-servicemen and a significant number of them, and their families or the widows of servicemen, ended up in workhouses, which were renowned for the poor treatment of their residents.

The Royal British Legion (RBL) had been formed earlier in the year, on May 15, 1921, and combined four organizations that had been established to support servicemen. The early work of the RBL focused on those in urgent need and, in 1921, it started a “Poppy Appeal” to collect money for its cause.

The tradition originated in America after Moina Michael was inspired by a poem written by John McCrae titled “In Flanders Fields” to buy artificial poppies to sell to raise money for servicemen in need. This practice was adopted by both the American Legion Auxiliary and the RBL in 1921, although the dates that poppies are worn varies in both countries. In the United States, the traditional date to wear these poppies is the Friday before Memorial Day. In the UK, they are worn to mark Armistice Day on November 11, which is the day the Armistice agreement was signed, marking the end of fighting and the start of peace negotiations when it entered into force at 11 a.m. that day.

In 1921, the RBL ordered one million poppies from France and commissioned the manufacture of an additional eight million in Britain in order to sell the poppies as a symbol of “remembrance and hope for a peaceful future” and support for the service and sacrifice of members of the Armed Forces and their families. The funds raised from the sale of poppies are used in support of servicemen and their widows and families. In 1921, despite the recession, the RBL sold out of poppies and raised £106,000 (approximately US$146,000), which, when adjusting for inflation, is roughly equivalent to £5.4 million (approximately US$7.3 million) today. The success of the Poppy Appeal has continued over the past 100 years and raised £46.5 million (approximately US$64 million) in 2019.

Poppies in the EU

The online sale of poppies to the European Union (EU) through the RBL’s “Poppy Shop” was halted in 2021 as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU (commonly known as Brexit). As a result of Brexit, the RBL stated “regrettably we will need to cease sales to customers in countries in the EU until such times that legislation is reviewed.” This year, the RBL determined that the sale of poppies to EU member states through its “Poppy Shop” would not be commercially viable due to the increased expenses, such as customs charges and the additional paperwork of having to register for value added tax (VAT) in an EU member state, which would increase the price of the product by an unreasonable amount.

Poppies in Soccer

The use of poppies as a symbol of remembrance has not been without issue. In 2016, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the body responsible for governing soccer around the world, was embroiled in controversy after it declined a request for soccer players for the four teams from the UK (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, which are known as the Home nations) to wear the poppy symbol on armbands during a world cup qualifier between England and Scotland that was scheduled to be held on Remembrance Day. While FIFA had permitted this in 2011, it noted in 2016, that the recently amended Laws of the Game provide that players’ equipment must not carry commercial, political or religious messages, and considered the poppy to be a political symbol. The general secretary of FIFA stated “Britain is not [the] only country that has been suffering from the result of war.” The UK Parliament held a debate on this issue and member’s of parliament (MPs) were not receptive to FIFA’s approach, with the prime minister calling it “utterly outrageous” and wrapping up her statement by advising FIFA to “jolly well … sort their own house out.” The minister for sport, heritage and tourism stated “[p]oppies are a poignant tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of our servicemen and women, and footballers and fans alike should be able to wear them with pride.”

Despite the outcry from the general public, MPs, the Cabinet and the prime minister, FIFA upheld the ban. In defiance of this decision, the English and Scottish teams not only both wore black armbands with a poppy during their match on November 11, 2016, but also displayed pictures of poppies on the big screen, distributed t-shirts featuring poppies to the fans in the stands, played the last post and held a one minute silence. As a result, England, as the home team, was fined £35,000 (approximately US$50,000) and Scotland was fined £15,600 (approximately US$21,500) by FIFA. The FIFA disciplinary committee chairman stated “[i]n the stadium and on the pitch, there is only room for sport, nothing else.” The Welsh and Northern Irish teams also featured displays of the poppy in the stands or on the pitch and were also fined approximately US$21,600 and US$16,200, respectively. England announced its intention to contest the fine at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The ban stood for almost a year, until the end of 2017, when FIFA revised the Laws of the Game to permit symbols and slogans that can be interpreted as political, provided they do not relate to political parties, individuals, governments, or political events. The Laws of the Game provide that “[w]hen commemorating a significant national or international event, the sensibilities of the opposing team (including its supporters) and the general public should be carefully considered,” and it recommended that any disputes involving these issues be resolved prior to the game. It thus appears that, within the Laws of the Game, the poppy marking Armistice Day is now considered to commemorate a significant national event rather than as a political symbol and that, provided the support of the opposing team and organizing body has been obtained prior to the match, the home national teams can display the poppy. The four soccer teams reportedly never paid the fines that were levied against them.

Poppies and the Environment

Red poppies, which were originally made of silk, are now comprised of paper and plastic. With the UK seeking to improve the environment through policies and laws, the RBL has stated that the paper and plastic components of the poppy can be separated and recycled by some local authorities and it has also set up places where people can return poppies for recycling at a national chain of grocery stores. The RBL also sells enamel poppy pins that can be worn each year. The RBL further states that it has removed over eight million items of single use plastic from its 2021 products and is continuing “to look at ways to further reduce the environmental impacts of […] Poppy Appeal products.”

 

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