Expatriate Commemorations on Poppy Day
On 7 November 1919, King George V issued a proclamation calling for a two-minute silence on 11 November: ‘All work, all sound and all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of every one may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead’. The Times reported on this ‘simple service of silence and remembrance’, deeming that there could be ‘no service worthier, or so sure to touch the inmost feelings of the British race’. Sure enough, four days later, at 11:00am, throughout Britain and the Commonwealth, people fell silent in remembrance of those who had lost their lives over the course of the conflict.
For those far from home, members of the British diaspora, Poppy Day—as it tended to be designated in the local press—similarly assumed great significance. Across Southeast Asia, communities marked the day through now-traditional methods. In Singapore, groups gathered at the Cenotaph on the Esplanade to lay wreaths, including, in 1923, the ‘officers of the Straits Settlements Police, in memory of their comrades who lost their lives during the European War’ (Singapore Free Press, 6 November 1923). Wreath-laying was, of course, only one way in which people marked the day. The wearing of a poppy in the weeks and days preceding Armistice Day allowed individuals to pay their own tribute.
Singapore Free Press, 12 November 1923.
In many towns and cities the sale of poppies generated funds that were then remitted to charities in Britain. In 1923, ‘Flanders poppies’ were sold in Selangor, the profits from the sale of which were sent to the ‘Benevolent Branch of the British Legion, to relieve distress among ex-service men of all ranks, their widows, orphans and dependents’ (Straits Times, 13 October 1923). Notices printed in the local press reminded, and encouraged, members of the public to purchase ‘these beautiful flowers’, sellers of which could be found ‘in all the principal thoroughfares and at the hotels’ (Singapore Free Press, 9 November 1923). The 1923 collection in Singapore was a great success, reaching the ‘handsome total of $6,376.27’ (Straits Times, 22 November 1923). Indeed, ‘successful efforts were recorded across the Malay Peninsula’: Perak, $5,107.48; Selangor, $2,830.49; Malacca, $1,578.39; and in Negri Sembilan, $869 (Straits Times, 5 January 1924).
The following year, ten years since the outbreak of the First World War, the Straits Times reported that in Singapore, ‘poppies were selling like wild fire’. ‘One looks out of place in Singapore today without a red poppy’, the correspondent began, ‘for practically every person is wearing one’. There were, according to one observer an ‘invasion’ of ladies, ‘about 125’ of them, ‘out selling poppies and they certainly lent a touch of colour to the streets as they stood with their baskets of flaming red flowers at prominent street corners’. Prices for the poppies were set at one dollar, though it was reported that ‘many paid as much as ten for one of them’ (Straits Times, 10 November 1924)—a clear indicator of how important the commemoration of Poppy Day was for members of the British diaspora.