John Lichfield: Poppies, patriotism and the souring of an honourable tradition

The scarlet poppy is a symbol of blood sacrifice and death; it is also a symbol of the stubborn renewal of hope and life

"On TV screens, the poppies grow, On every lapel, row on row." They bloom earlier each year, it seems.

A kind of poppy arms race has broken out between the different channels. Our newsreaders are more patriotic, or caring, than your newsreaders, the TV bosses seem to say. Ditto our football pundits, weathermen and women, telly chefs and game-show contestants.

Not to wear a poppy on screen, like Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, has become a subject for complaint by viewers, angry discussion in blogs and instant opinion polls in the flag-waving end of the press. Poppies are in danger of becoming the opium of the populists: a kind of mandatory badge of patriotism or an unthinking, seasonal fashion statement, like the tinsel which grows like chickweed in shop windows from early November. Poppies are a beautiful symbol of remembrance. They deserve to be cherished. They should be a simple, personal statement of respect for the long dead or of support for Our Boys and Girls wounded overseas.

The Poppy Appeal by the British Legion (which hopes to raise £36m this year) is the most worthwhile of charitable causes. Whatever you may think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, British servicemen and women injured there, or in earlier conflicts, deserve our care. Anything that promotes poppy sales would, I imagine, be welcomed by the Legion's fundraisers. All the same, the fate of the poppy in the mass-media age is worrying. Is it to become so banalised that its ambivalent meaning, and origins, are forgotten? Is it to become a compulsory statement of national fervour?

The hue and cry against Jon Snow (who reasonably insists that he will wear his poppy only on Remembrance day itself) is fatuous. During the 1914-18 war women famously handed feathers to men who were not in uniform. Are we heading for a situation where poppies will be handed to empty-lapelled dissidents in the street by stern-faced Daily Express readers?

The controversy raises wider questions about the whole issue of remembrance. Why, and how, should we still remember the First World War? Or even the Second? Although the Poppy Appeal is financially important to the British Legion, it represents only about a third of its annual income. At the same time, the annual poppy fortnight from early November, antedated deep into October this year by some BBC presenters, is something more than just an appeal. It has become Britain's biggest public show of military and historical commemoration. Unlike the French and Americans, we do not take a day off work to remember our war dead. We wear poppies instead.

There is no equivalent elsewhere (except more discreetly in Australia, Canada and New Zealand). The poppy as a badge of First World War memories began, it is startling to discover, in the United States. It still survives in parts of the US but has died out there as a national phenomenon. In France, the symbol of First World War remembrance is not the poppy but the bleuet or cornflower. Both are flowers whose seeds survive deep in the ground for decades, even for centuries. They bloom after the ground has been ploughed by tractors – or by shells. When parts of northern France and Belgium were churned up in 1914-18, poppies and cornflowers sprang up almost overnight, in no-man's-land or among the rows of freshly dug graves.

The choice of the poppy as the symbol of the war dead is usually traced to "In Flanders Fields", a 1915 poem by a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, which I parodied above. The true first lines are:

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row ..."

The poem, interestingly, foreshadows the present debate over the poppy. Is it a symbol of patriotic pride? Or a humble way of remembering suffering and sacrifice, whatever your view of that terrible conflict or of all war? The second verse of the poem can be read as a bitter denunciation of the futility of warfare:

"We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders fields."

The third verse can be read as a patriotic call to arms:

"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."

To me, the ambivalence is what the poem is about. Nearly a century later, ambivalence is still the best way to approach the First World War – and all wars. Why, in 1914-18, did a Western world which was beginning, for the first time, to respect and value individuals pour them into its new mincing machine of military-industrial power? Why did an educated population stand for it? The answer, in part, is that one of our first uses of mass literacy and mass education was to inculcate an unthinking patriotism and nationalism – in Britain and France, as much as in Germany. The innocence and confidence of the young men in boaters and flat caps who queued to join the Pals' Battalions in 1914 was born from a Boys' Own Magazine conviction that British-is-best as much as a belief in freedom and democracy.

And yet, can we confidently state that they were not defending freedom and democracy? There are more British visitors to the First World War battlefields and cemeteries today than ever before. Talking to them, you still find some who believe that the war was a great patriotic and democratic crusade and some who believe that it was a criminal waste of life. You find many people who – quite reasonably – believe both. Arguments over the poppy are not new. Attempts began as early as the 1930s to popularise an alternative, pacifist "white poppy". They have never had much success. I believe that this is because the poppy – like the McCrae poem – has always been an ambivalent statement.

The scarlet poppy is a symbol of blood sacrifice and death; it is also a symbol of the stubborn renewal of hope and life. It can be worn as a symbol of pride but also as a symbol of grief and of refusal to forget the lessons of the past. The attempts to enforce poppy-wearing as a patriotic act diminish the true value of the poppy as a personal statement and an ambiguous statement. They veer toward the kind of unthinking patriotism and nationalism which made the 1914-18 war possible in the first place.

I have often had reason, professionally and privately, to visit the British First World War cemeteries, an extraordinary archipelago of English country gardens scattered across northern France and Belgium. I try also to visit the German cemeteries, which are dull and dank and little visited (and hardly at all by Germans). Usually, there is only one splash of colour among the German graves: a wreath of poppies left there by a visiting, British school party. Now that is the proper use of the poppy.