The White Poppy of Remembrance

The park and the war memorial in London, England, are both postage stamp size. They stand –The Hermitage Wharf Memorial Garden and the People of London Memorial – on the south bank of the River Thames, a short walk from London’s classical Tower Bridge landmark.

The garden is just that, a small well-tended bed of flowers surrounding a circular block of stone with a dove in flight cut through the centre. There are two inscriptions. “In war resolution, in defeat defiance, in victory magnanimity, in peace goodwill” graces the circular stone on one side. On the other, there is a command: “Remember before God the people of London, 1939-1945.”

It is the lone memorial in London, the city of statues and bronze tablets marking historic happenings, to the 20,000 civilians who lost their lives in 57 nights of consecutive bombing raids – the London Blitz. On the last night of the blitz, May 10 – 11, 1941, more than 1,000 high explosive bombs smashed across the city with the heaviest concentrations in the East End and Thames dockside.

Over the course of the 57-night blitz mixed in with the heavy-duty bombs were 55 heavy oil canister firebombs and thousands of incendiary bombs. There were also 11 “blockbuster” parachute mines. A “blockbuster” would drift down and stand silently until the detonator-timer kicked in. It would destroy a full city block on explosion. The end results of firebomb explosions require no explanation.

While London was suffering its worst of the 57 nights, the historic town of Penryn, 435 kilometres west and close to the edge of Cornwall, was sleeping until one bomb from a lone aircraft fell on a row of modest houses. Today, flowers grow in Penryn’s Memorial Garden with a small tablet reading: “On this site stood homes which were destroyed during an early morning air raidwhen 18 lives were lost.” Each year the town remembers.

Details of the Penryn “raid” are hard to find but they still read out the names of the dead, including “four-year-old David Boxhall, and Percy and Ronald Pascoe, brothers four and two years old” who died with their mother and five other family members. John Rickard Rapson, 78, was a victim, as was Richard Ralph who, The Falmouth Packet newspaper reports, “had survived four years in WW1 trenches only to be killed in his own home.”

Penryn was a flea bite when compared with London or other major UK cities. And by 1945 the brutal devastation in UK cities paled when measured against the wreckage and loss of civilian lives in cities across Europe from the channel ports to Moscow.

Germany had lost as many as 500,000 civilians including 76,000 children – and their mothers.

Adding to the ranks of civilian dead were women who served as air raid wardens, in ambulance services, and as firefighters. There is a Memorial to Fire Fighters near St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is a bronze sculpture depicting a crew in action during an air raid when civilian firefighting casualties were high. Two members of the squad are female firefighters. There were many others

Last Thursday there was a letter in my local newspaper signed by a 90-year old woman who wanted people to know that on November 11 she would be attending a memorial service for the Spanish Civil War, the first democracy versus fascism war – 1936-39. She would, she wrote, be proudly wearing a white poppy.

I have never met or spoken to Alison Acker, the letter signer, but I salute her white poppy courage. The different poppy with its white petals and green centre has been around since the 1930s when a group of women, many of whom had lost husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers in WW1 decided to become advocates for peace. They would remember fallen soldiers, sailors, and airmen with a white poppy symbol of peace that would reach beyond the military and include the civilian dead.

It was not a popular movement and showed little growth over the years, but it never faded away. Many ex-service groups denounced it as unpatriotic and a betrayal of the men and women who served in the armed forces and helped keep the world and our nation safe.

The white poppy supporters denied the charges, insisted they respected and appreciated the sacrifices made but also believed that war should not be glamourized and that civilian dead deserved respect equal to that accorded the military. In the years since WW2 white poppy wearers have insisted they honour all war victims, especially the elderly and women and children who, since that conflict have been unarmed but in harm’s way once the fighting starts.

The white poppy received an unexpected boost a week ago when the 141-year-old St. John Ambulance organization changed its uniform dress code to allow its volunteers to wear the white poppy.

The Peace Pledge Union which handles white poppy distribution says it hopes to have 100,000 sold before November 11 – 10,000 more than a year ago. It sounds encouraging until measured against the war-like rhetoric hurled back and forth at the international level, and especially by our southern neighbour.

Our world leaders threaten but say what they really want is peace; and we, the people – or most of us – echo that we, too, want peace.

But not enough to wear a white poppy.

4 comments

  1. The white poppy deserves positive recognition. According to UNICEF, “Civilian fatalities in wartime have climbed from 5 per cent at the turn of the [previous] century … to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s.” And this does not even begin to count war refugees, which now exceed 65 million.

    I am interested in the inscription, “In war resolution, in defeat defiance, in victory magnanimity, in peace goodwill.” It appears at the beginning of each part of Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War. Does the inscription credit him?

  2. All of your Remembrance Day writings have been inspiring and this continues that legacy . It’s a story I have never been aware of and I thank you again for tomorrow and each November 11 th. of the past’s contributions you have made .

  3. You are always so up to date with your ways of relating an historical blog to today’s world. Although I was aware of the White Poppy I was obviously not as well informed as I should have been. Thank you for bringing me up to date with regard to all the background information.

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