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Image: communiqué announcing the armistice

In November 1918, delegates from the main combatant powers met in a railway siding at the forest of Compiègne in France. There they drew up the details for the armistice which signalled the end of the First World War. The cease-fire was scheduled for 11.00am but Parisian early-risers had the news before dawn: the message was transmitted by Morse-code from the Eiffel Tower in the small hours of the morning.

This is how Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, delivered the news to the House of Commons later that same day:

Thus at 11 o’clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came to an end all wars.

Clearly this was not the case. Contrary to popular expectations, this war did not end all wars. At the time, the conflict was described as the ‘Great War for Civilization’ but in retrospect we now associate it with much that was brutal and deeply uncivilized. This was the first total war and it brought previously unimaginable casualties: nearly 10 million men died and countless others suffered serious mental or physical wounds.

During the 1920s the Royal British Legion began to organise an annual poppy day to be held on the anniversary of each armistice. Veterans were employed to make and sell poppies, the proceeds from the sales then went to support wounded ex-servicemen and their families. In addition the symbol of the poppy came to signify the public remembrance of the war and the war dead. Now, poppies are used to signify the remembrance of all British war dead, and are a central part of the remembrance ceremonies at the Cenotaph and other memorial sites around the country.

Wearing a poppy is a politically controversial statement in many ways. BBC presenters and politicians are all obliged to wear them. This smacks somewhat of a state-imposed ritual. We are instructed to wear our poppy ‘with pride’. Why pride? Why not sorrow? Why do we officially remember only British war dead? Why not all war dead? Sometimes the remembrance services can seem too much like a glorification of war – although the services in this country strike me as considerably less celebratory than the ones I have witnessed in Paris. So does wearing a poppy glorify war? Some people have long argued that it does. Certainly in the inter-war years, and again during the 1980s, pacifist groups used to wear white poppies to encourage people to remember war without glorifying the killing.

I have not seen a white poppy for many years and I have no desire to glorify war. Yet wearing a poppy for a week in November does at least remind people of one simple – but strangely forgettable – fact, namely that people get killed in wars. Given that the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to rumble on despite the credit crunch, we could all benefit from remembering that, whatever else they may do, wars always result in people being killed or maimed.

Dr Fiona Reid, History Division, University of Glamorgan

Fiona Reid’s book, Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914-30, will be published by Hambeldon in 2010.