The Poppy Industry Blooms

Whilst we all buy poppies, how much do we know about the two world wars?
Poppy memorial on an appropriately grey day, Canary Wharf, 2018.
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When England played Germany on 10th November, 2017 at Wembley, it seemed as though the football was incidental to the virtue signalling. Not only were the two teams  sporting poppy armbands but there were poppies on sale, poppy T-shirts given away, poppy wreaths laid, poppy banners paraded and then, during the minute’s silence before kick-off, the Wembley arch glowed red as ‘Football Remembers’ flashed up on the big screen. The poppy industry in force.

As if football could forget. As if any of us could forget. Not in this day and age when the poppy is so ubiquitous at this time of year. Once upon a time, when history was still a serious subject in schools and kids had a grandparent or two to tell them a war story, we honoured our warriors with a plain old paper poppy. How quaint and uncommercial.

Today, we can show our gratitude with poppy brooches, coasters, tea towels, pen-pots, ear-rings, umbrellas, baseball caps, scarves, friendship bracelets, zip pullers, jigsaws, golf balls, keyrings and fold-away shopping bags. You can even buy a dog-collar, so pooch can wear his poppy with pride. Yes, yes, it’s all for a good cause, but the curious feature about the burgeoning poppy industry – this year over 40 million will be distributed – is that it’s in inverse proportion to the nation’s historical awareness.

It’s becoming apparent that our grasp of military history is as weak as England’s World Cup hopes. Take the survey conducted by the Sunday Telegraph to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two. So when did the war start? Nearly half the 15 to 19-year-olds failed to reply ‘1939.’ Asked who had declared “We shall fight on the beaches” and more than a third couldn’t identify Churchill. Wrong answers included Stalin, Henry VIII and Hitler. It gets better. A quarter of respondents couldn’t name any of Nazi Germany’s wartime allies, although some of the countries suggested were Switzerland, the States and Scotland.

“It is a subset of a wider problem,” said Kathleen Burk, professor of modern history at University College London, on reading the results. “It is the lack of a continuous or overall understanding of British history that I find astonishing.”

Then there was the 2012 poll that revealed 54 per cent of 16-24 year-olds didn’t know when World War One began, or the survey in 2014 that showed 18 per cent of the Great British public believed the Great War was the fault of the Nazis. I can reel off more: the 30 per cent who had never heard of the Battle of Britain, the 40 per cent who shook their head at the mention of the Somme and the 25 per cent who didn’t know the significance of the poppy. Last month, the History Channel quizzed 2,000 adults about their World War Two knowledge and probably wished they hadn’t. Three in ten didn’t know about the Blitz and six in ten couldn’t identity 1944 as the year of the Normandy Landings.

The warning signs have been there for a while. Ten years ago, Ofsted noted that after the age of 13 only one in three children studied history, a statistic blamed on the fact the subject “has been relatively neglected in primary schools in recent years as schools have focused on literacy and numeracy”.

In 2010, historian Simon Schama warned that the way history was taught was creating a two tier Britain, those who “grow up with a sense of our shared memory as a living, urgently present body of knowledge”, and those “who have been encouraged to treat it as little more than ornamental polishing”. But the situation hasn’t improved. In September this year it was announced that changes to GCSE coursework means history, along with geography and foreign languages, are increasingly being dropped by pupils from the age of 13.

Some will say it doesn’t matter if we’re becoming a nation that thinks Churchill’s claim to fame is car insurance just so long as we keep wearing our poppy with pride. But it seems a shame. These young men and women fought for us. The least we could do is know where and why they fought because Remembrance without comprehension is meaningless. It devalues the poppy so that it becomes just a brand to be flaunted at football matches.

This article first appeared in The Spectator.

Gavin Mortimer is the acclaimed author of Guidance from the Greatest: What the World War Two Generation Can Teach Us About How We Live Our Lives.