Remembrance poppy still poignant

Former British World War II prisoners-of-war Cliff Burgess (L) and Maurice Naylor (R) wear poppies as they attend a remembrance service at Kranji Commonwealth Cemetery in Singapore on November 7, 2013. Photo - AFP

London: The red poppy, a symbol of remembrance for the wartime dead, is being taken up by younger generations in Britain, a century on from its World War I origins.

For at least two weeks a year in the build-up to November 11 -- Armistice Day in 1918 -- poppies are seen on television, jacket lapels, car bumpers and newspaper mastheads.

Top football teams now have poppies emblazoned on their shirts, mirroring wider public empathy for the sacrifices of Britain's troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, where 179 and 446 have died respectively.

Social media have also helped bring support for troops and veterans to a younger audience.

The original Poppy Factory, founded in 1922 to provide work for sick, injured or disabled veterans, still produces half a million paper poppies by hand each year.

"When I see the poppies on the people, it does bring a bit of a lump to the throat, especially on young ones," bearded Royal Navy veteran Dave Brown told AFP as he worked on the petal-cutting machines at the factory in Richmond, southwest London.

"A lot more younger people are wearing poppies now, whereas before there was a generation that wasn't bothered," he said.

Following a campaign by the Royal British Legion, a two-minute silence on Armistice Day has been reinstated in most schools, and a commemorative event is also streamed live into many classrooms from Trafalgar Square.

Last year's Poppy Appeal raised £35 million towards the Legion's work supporting veterans and their families.

While most people are happy to wear a poppy, some decry what they see as growing "poppy fascism" -- pressure to wear the red symbols in public.

US-born Methodist minister Patricia Jackson sparked controversy when she said she would refuse to wear a poppy when she conducted this year's remembrance service because it "advocates war".

Jackson, who is based in Telford, has since been suspended from her duties over an unrelated incident.

Sold for a small donation, about 44 million artificial lapel poppies are produced each year in Britain, mostly by machine.

But half a million are still made by hand in Richmond.

At the white-painted factory by the River Thames, some 30 staff work year-round ensuring Britain is ready for November.

Besides poppies, they also make a million small plywood crosses and 100,000 wreaths, including the one to be laid by Queen Elizabeth at a ceremony in London on Sunday.

Tony Laywood, 49, who served in the Grenadier Guards, was making a cross emblazoned with a squadron's name.

"The recent conflicts have brought it to the public's attention, that's for sure. A lot before that was remembering the first and second World Wars," he said.

The poppy's origins as a remembrance symbol lie in Canadian soldier John McCrae's 1915 poem "In Flanders Fields". It cites the poppies growing on the graves of fallen World War I comrades in Belgium and northeast France.

The Poppy Factory was founded by Western Front veteran Major George Howson to provide disabled veterans with work and income.

The ubiquitous lapel poppy is made of a green plastic stem, a green paper leaf, a red paper petal and finished with a black plastic button.

It is assembled on a wooden block designed to be used one-handed by amputees.

In the 21st century, the factory is extending Howson's basic premise beyond the Richmond workshop floor.

It places injured, sick or disabled ex-troops into a wide range of jobs that fit their skills, wherever they live in Britain.

Shaun Johnson, the programme's employability coordinator, had his own 11-year career in the Royal Artillery brought to an abrupt halt by a crush injury.

Eighteen months working on the factory floor helped get his life on an even keel and he now works upstairs assisting those in a similar boat.

About 700 people have registered, with 350 placed into jobs. Most are soldiers who served in Northern Ireland, though Afghanistan veterans are becoming more prevalent.

After 12 months at work, 75 percent remain in employment.

Looking at their life stories, "many times I could take their name off and put mine on," Johnson said.

"A lot of guys are very unsure of themselves, with a lot of worries.

"The guys coming through, there are double, triple amputees and we've got them flying planes now. I'm astonished. Some are writing novels, they are doing all sorts of jobs."

No longer simply an emblem of remembrance, "people are more aware there's two sides to the poppy", he said.


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