26/11/2015

Poppies and Peace

This article was recently published in Welsh and English on the Wales For Peace / Cymru Dros Heddwch section of the Welsh Centre for International Affairs website.


Aberystwyth Town Council first began laying a white poppy wreath at the war memorial in the town’s Castle Grounds on the weekend of Remembrance Day 2004. Mabon ap Gwynfor, a grandson of Gwynfor Evans, Plaid Cymru’s first MP, had become a councillor in the local elections of that year and successfully proposed a motion which was then seconded by Cllr Mark Strong. 

Like most town councils, Aberystwyth had always laid a red poppy wreath at the traditional Remembrance Day ceremony conducted by the British Legion and, with the Legion not prepared to allow white poppies at their ceremony, the proposal meant that the Council would lay different coloured wreaths at two different ceremonies.

The white poppy initiative was strongly supported by the Aberystwyth Peace & Justice Network - a co-ordination of local peace campaigners existing since 1982 - and the ceremony was conducted by local Presbyterian Minister Pryderi Llwyd. 

According to the website of the Peace Pledge Union, white poppies, “Symbolise the belief that there are better ways to resolve conflicts…(than) killing fellow human beings”. As such, they can be seen to present a challenge to traditional red poppy ceremonies which in turn can appear to represent an unquestioning acceptance of war. The British Legion’s website describes Remembrance Sunday as, “A day for the nation to remember and honour those who have sacrificed themselves to secure and protect our freedom”.

Part of the reason feelings can run high, and why many Legion members have been resistant to allowing wider perspectives into their ceremony, is that some of those attending will have been in battle themselves and seen comrades killed. Some may well have suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Others present at the ceremony may have had close relatives or friends killed. For these people, the ceremony can be part of a grief process. It’s not difficult to see how it can feel uncomfortable to have people or groups present who carry an implied questioning of the reason for soldiers to be fighting in the first place.

Probably because of these feelings, in 2004 and until very recently, any kind of agreement with the British Legion was impossible. In Aberystwyth, despite some approaches from the Peace Network over the years, the Legion simply wanted nothing to do with white poppies. Even holding a ceremony on a different day of the same weekend was controversial. 

However, despite many town council seats changing hands at the 2008 and 2012 local elections, the Council stuck steadfastly to its balanced policy established in 2004 of supporting the laying of both wreaths. The only near hiccup was in 2008 when a vote in favour of continuing had to be decided on the casting vote of the Mayor, Sue Jones-Davies. When Pryderi Llwyd eventually retired, his role in leading the white poppy ceremony was taken over by Rhidian Griffiths from the same Presbyterian chapel, Capel y Morfa.

For many years the white poppy ceremony was held on the Saturday so as to avoid any clash with Remembrance Sunday. Eventually members of the Aberystwyth Peace & Justice Network decided they felt too sidelined by this and began holding a ceremony on the Sunday afternoon of Remembrance Day after the main ceremony had dispersed, adding their white wreaths to the red ones laid on the steps of the war memorial in the morning. 

Then, last year, after the largest ever white poppy ceremony at the memorial, attended by around 60 people, the four wreaths laid were found stuffed in a nearby rubbish bin the following day. The ensuing press publicity left a bad taste and clearly gave the British Legion cause for thought. 

In July of this year, Aberystwyth Town Council was approached informally by local Legion officers asking to talk to councillors about plans for this year’s Remembrance Day. Six councillors attended an initial meeting with the same number of Legion members in the town’s Railway Club on July 16th. This is where the offer was first made. The Legion said they wanted to give the opportunity for white poppy wreaths to be placed as part of their main ceremony. There would be no limit imposed on the number of wreaths and, importantly, they made it clear that they had consulted their hierarchy who supported the initiative. 

The condition was that there should be no political statements of any kind on these wreaths, nor on any banners or badges of those attending. This was felt by the Legion to be in keeping with the purpose of the ceremony, which was meant purely in remembrance of those individuals or groups who had died in war. Messages on wreaths were supposed to reflect this. 

‘Political statements’ included the word “Peace” (or “Hedd” in Welsh) on poppies. I knew this could be a sticking point. However the upshot of the meeting was that I would contact the Peace & Justice Network inviting them to meet with the British Legion if they felt there was a possibility of taking the offer forward. I then attended one of the Peace Network’s meetings to answer any questions and fill in any gaps. They very much welcomed the offer and, whilst there were clearly some uncertainties, quickly agreed to attend a meeting with the Legion.

The meeting between the two organisations was held on September 16th in the chamber of the Town Council. Four people from the two groups were present plus three town councillors, including Mayor Endaf Edwards, acting in the role as honest brokers. I was chairing and, after introductions (because, despite living in the same town, most mix in different circles and had never met before), it was astonishing how quickly agreement was reached.

When it was pointed out that white poppies were generally only manufactured with the words Peace or Hedd the Legion quickly relented on their original stipulation  about this and, after the Peace Network had consulted their constituent groups, the agreement was in place. 

An additional offer, which demonstrated the Legion’s seriousness, was that the Cor Gobaith - a local choir of around 20 people that sings mainly peace or political songs - were to be invited to sing at the Remembrance Day church service if a suitable song could be agreed with the Vicar.

In order to prepare people for the change, a press statement was agreed. It began, 
“Aberystwyth Town Council is delighted to announce that, following discussions between officers of the Aberystwyth Branch of the Royal British Legion and representatives of Aberystwyth Peace & Justice Network, this year there will be a single Remembrance Day ceremony at the war memorial  at which everyone will be welcome.”

Sean Langton, Chair of Aberystwyth Royal British Legion, was quoted as saying, 
“The Legion’s red poppy honours all those who have sacrificed their lives to protect the freedoms we enjoy today; including the freedom to wear the poppy of one’s choice. If the poppy became compulsory it would lose its meaning and significance. The red poppy is a universal symbol of Remembrance and hope, including hope for a positive future and a peaceful world.”

Lotte Reimer of Aberystwyth & Peace Justice Network said,
“This is what we have always wanted. Although the two ceremonies have had different emphases, we also have a great deal in common. As a local organisation that campaigns for peace in the world it is clear that we should work for peace at home and we are delighted to accept the Aberystwyth Royal British Legion’s approach”.

On Sunday November 8th, something approaching 600 people attended the Remembrance Day ceremony at Aberystwyth war memorial following the traditional march from the Old Town Hall. Attendance for the event, at what must be one of the more spectacular settings for a war memorial in the country, is normally good but this time it was augmented by around 50 people who attended specifically because of the white poppy element.

There was some nervousness on both sides. Some legionnaires, going on pre-held conceptions, were concerned that members of the Peace & Justice Network might try to stage some kind of attention-seeking protest. Some on the peace side were wondering if there might be audible unrest amongst the legionnaires. However, in practice, everyone behaved impeccably and those attending for the first time entered fully into the solemnity of the occasion.

Amongst the dozens of red wreaths, white poppy wreaths were laid by the Peace & Justice Network, Aberystwyth Quakers, Borth & Aberystwyth Women in Black and the Cor Gobaith, with a purple wreath being laid for animal victims of war.

People then filed onto the nearby St Michael’s Church where, halfway through the service, the Cor Gobaith, wearing a respectful black, sung a beautiful rendition of ‘A Song of Peace’ to the tune of Finlandia.

Despite natural uncertainties about bringing innovation into such a traditional occasion, the whole event went as well on the day as could possibly have been expected. The white poppy supporters laid their wreaths in the same respectful, understated way as everyone else and none of the fears about possible disruption materialised.

Whilst there’s no point in denying that there has been some grumbling about the principle from more conservative members of the British Legion, outside the organisational bubbles comments have been overwhelmingly positive, both locally and further afield, and respect for both groups has almost certainly been enhanced. Local press coverage a few days later was measured and no attempt was made to sell newspapers by creating controversy.

Particular tributes for the success should go to the current officers of Aberystwyth British Legion who, in contrast to their predecessors, showed real leadership and went to considerable trouble to bring their members along with them. Equally, to the Aberystwyth Peace & Justice Network who, when approached, played their part enthusiastically and conscientiously. Lastly, to Mones Farah, the Minister at St Michael’s Church who gave his full support to incorporating the initiative into his church service.

Although, objectively, the laying of a few white poppy wreaths was little more than a modest addition to the traditional ceremony, everyone who has observed the lack of progress in the debate over the years knows that, symbolically, a historic leap has taken place. It now becomes much easier for others to do the same.

Everyone will now take a pause and assimilate things. There’s a long time till next November. But, having broken the logjam, the intention of all senior figures in the organisations involved is that the historic Remembrance Day settlement in Aberystwyth should continue into the future.

The photo shows Lotte Reimer of Aberystwyth Peace & Justice Network (with Pat Richards of Borth & Aberystwyth Women in Black behind) laying a white poppy at Aberystwyth War Memorial on November 8th this year.

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