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This Britain

The Big Question: Why are we asked to wear a poppy, and is its significance being lost?

Why are we asking this now?

Yesterday saw the official launch of this year's Royal British Legion poppy appeal. Dame Vera Lynn, 92, joined soprano Hayley Westenra in a rendition of the classic wartime song "We'll Meet Again" in front of the crowd in London's Horse Guards Parade, accompanied by the Regimental Band of the Irish Guards and flanked by four troopers from the Queen's Life Guards.

Why do we wear a poppy?

An American teacher, Moina Bell Michael, inspired by John McCrae's 1915 poem In Flanders Fields, began selling silk poppies to friends to raise money for the ex-Service community. McCrae, a doctor serving in the First World War with the Canadian Armed Forces, was moved to write the poem about the poppies that grew after the aftermath and devastation of the bloody fighting in the Flanders and Picardy regions of Belgium and Northern France. "Take up our quarrel with the foe; To you from failing hands we throw, The torch; be yours to hold it high, If ye break faith with us who die, We shall not sleep, though poppies grow, In Flanders Fields," he wrote.

In 1920 the poppy was proclaimed as the United States' national emblem of Remembrance and the following year Madame Guerin, a Frenchwoman, sold millions to raise funds for rehabilitation in areas of France. She also sent women to London to sell poppies and persuaded Earl Haig to adopt it for the British Legion. The first official Poppy Day was held in Britain on 11 November 1921.

What is different about this year?

The most memorable image of Armistice Day last year was the sight of the three surviving British First World War veterans laying wreaths at the Cenotaph. Henry Allingham, 112, who served in the Royal Air Force, Harry Patch, 110, formerly of the Army, and Bill Stone, 108, who was in the Royal Navy, led the silence. It was to be their final remembrance. All three died this year, with Mr Patch, the last British survivor to have fought in the trenches, passing away on 25 July.

Is the poppy relevant to the veterans of today?

Over the past few years the Royal British Legion has been at pains to dispel the belief that it only helps elderly veterans and remind the public that a new generation is coming home from war. For the first time this year the poster features an image of a coffin being repatriated from Afghanistan, in a hard-hitting campaign. Using the motto, "For their sake, wear a poppy", the appeal urges people to support troops wounded in Helmand and the families of those killed in the conflict.

How much money does Poppy Appeal raise?

Last year's poppy appeal raised almost £31m and it is hoping to exceed that figure this year. In 2008 the Royal British Legion raised £104.1m, almost half of which was from appeals, donations and legacies.

What is the role of the Royal British Legion?

The Legion, which currently has around 380,000 members, was founded in 1921 as a campaigning voice for the ex-Service community as a merger of four organisations: the Comrades of the Great War, the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers and The Officers' Association. Earl Haig, commander of the Battle of the Somme and Passchendaele, was one of the founders of the Legion. It was granted a Royal Charter on 29 May 1971 to mark its 50th anniversary which gives the Legion the privilege of the prefix "Royal".

Where does the money go?

The Legion currently spends more than £1m a week helping over 130,000 armed forces' dependents, as well as veterans and those bereaved, and is hoping to extend that to 160,000 beneficiaries this year. In 2008, it spent a total of £101.2m; on care services £18.4m, community welfare services £41.6m, Remembrance and ceremonial £3.2m and funds generation £23.9m. The charity says that for every pound raised, 80p goes towards achieving objectives while 6.6p goes on support costs.

Who is eligible for help?

There are 9.5 million people eligible for help in Britain because they are serving or have served in the armed forces for at least seven days or are a dependant of someone who has. The charity's work varies from offering home help to elderly and disabled veterans to campaigning for higher compensation payments for the wounded.

While it continues to support veterans from previous conflicts, it also helps survivors and grieving families of those killed in Afghanistan such as Royal Marine Lance Corporal Peter Dunning, 24, who lost both his legs in Helmand last year, and Hester Wright, 22, whose husband Damian, of the 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment, died in a roadside explosion in Afghanistan in 2007. The legion has helped her pay off debts, buy household goods and a school uniform for her six-year-old son Josh.

What is the protocol about wearing a poppy?

Some purists object to public figures such as politicians sporting poppies too early. Politicians have been wearing them since the beginning of this week even though the poppy-wearing period is supposed to run only from runs from the launch day (yesterday) to Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day.

Who makes poppies?

The origins of the Poppy Factory go back to 1922 when Major George Howson MC, a young infantry officer and engineer, founded the Disabled Society to help ex-Service men and women. He suggested to the British Legion that members should make poppies, and the artificial flowers were designed so that someone who had lost the use of one hand could still assemble them. With a grant of just £2,000 from the Unity Relief Fund, he set up a small factory in south London with five ex-servicemen. In a letter to his parents, he said: "I do not think it can be a great success, but it is worth trying. I consider the attempt ought to be made if only to give the disabled their chance." Today a team of 50 people – most of them disabled and service connected – work all year in a factory in Richmond in Surrey to make 38 million poppies, 5 million Remembrance petals, 900,000 crosses and 100,000 wreaths including those laid by the Queen and other members of the Royal Family.

Why is there also a white poppy?

In 1933 the Women's Co-operative Guild introduced the White Poppy to remember the dead of all wars and to promote peace. The Peace Pledge Union took part in its distribution from 1934, and white poppy wreaths were laid from 1937. In 1986 prime minister Margaret Thatcher expressed her "deep distaste" for the symbol, and opponents argue that the traditional red poppy already encompasses the sentiments and the white one diverts funds for the Royal British Legion.

Is the power of the poppy diminishing?


* The need to help veterans of war and their families is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago

* War in Afghanistan and Iraq have generated huge public sympathy for servicemen and women

* The poppy is an enduring national symbol and an opportunity to express support for the services


* The symbolism relates to the First World War, a conflict from which there are now no veterans left

* The poppy is associated with elderly veterans while newer charities such as Help for Heroes resonate more with a younger generation

* Younger generations may prefer other ways to mark remembrance