The Point of Poppies

examines the modern culture of remembrance in the lead up to national memorial day

With the approach of Remembrance Day this November, the country is once again preparing to reflect on the sacrifice made by British and Allied services who gave their lives in the wars of the 20th century. This process now seems natural and familiar to most people living in the United Kingdom; most people our age hold memories of attaching paper poppies to primary school jumpers, of seeing local war memorials decorated with scarlet, and of listening to the haunting sound of ‘The Last Post’, even if only via YouTube in a classroom or assembly hall. This year, however, should potentially stand out in your memory for years to come, as next Sunday the 11th marks exactly 100 years from when the original armistice agreement was signed, finally silencing the guns which had ravaged not only the fields of France but countless other regions of the world.

Reflecting on the bravery of the men and women of Britain and its allies, therefore, has an added element of poignancy this year. 100 years ago our family members looked towards the rest of the 20th century with determination that such carnage would not happen again- that it would truly be the ‘war to end all wars’- an attitude which did not mark the weary years of 1914-1917 when most had only come to expect more bloodshed. This was sadly not the case, with the preceding wars only proving again how willingly people will abandon their humanity and inflict pain on their fellow human beings.

Such sentiments will, of course, come as no revelation to most in this country, as the language of remembrance is so well learned it can often become a ritual of repetition everywhere. The line “they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old”, despite our best intentions, is so deeply embedded in our national consciousness it can often have a numbing effect when it comes to reflection. How are we then to fully engage with such a sombre and important tradition if we only rely on the phrases and patterns handed to us through our schools, media and other societal structures? One way could be to consider those that did ‘grow old’. As is often stated, over 700,000 British soldiers died in the First World War, compared with almost 400,000 in the Second, each one a tragedy in its own right. However, such facts often drown out the numbers of wounded in these conflicts, with 1,675,000 British soldiers becoming casualties, bearing anything from temporary injuries to those inflicting permanent, life changing trauma. Such soldiers often faced the years following the 1918 armistice agreement alone, battling mental health conditions which were barely understood or accepted by the majority of the country; few social provisions were made available to them by the government they had fought for. These men rarely received acknowledgement for their service. Men would sometimes be socially ostracised if their injuries were particularly disfiguring, with facial injuries being among the worst nightmares of every young man serving in the trenches. If reflecting on this side of war only compounds the discomfort you feel when the 11th rolls around again, never fear, this feeling seems fitting for the time of year.

Such reflections are also important when the dual purpose of the poppy is recalled: The Royal British Legion, which manufactures around 36 million poppies every year from their factory in Richmond, is a charity which “provides lifelong support for the armed forces community – serving men and women, veterans and their families”. In buying a poppy each year, you are not merely upholding a national tradition but are also funding the activities of the legion. These include providing financial aid, rehabilitation and other opportunities to British men and women affected by war. Each poppy can be seen as an effort to provide help and support to the survivors of war, those unfortunate veterans who, alongside physical and mental injuries, certainly are wearied by age. Donations to charities such as Help For Heroes has also been anchored to our perception of remembrance in the 21st century, providing care and rehabilitation to those who desperately require it after their experiences in war.

Clearly, therefore, our understanding of remembrance can easily be stretched to accommodate the wounded soldier, as few would disagree that such men and women are deserving of our thoughts and support. What then of civilians? After all, events such as the Blitz are seared into our understanding of the Second World War – images of Luftwaffe bombers wreaking havoc on London and tales of families evacuated to the countryside are taught to children as early as primary school. The enchanting world of Narnia is even introduced with the evacuation of the Pevensie children away from falling Nazi bombs. Most would agree that the civilians killed in such air raids are deserving of our thoughts during our ritual of remembrance.

What then of those civilians killed in other countries? Shall we mourn for the Soviet civilian caught in the jaws of Hitler’s invasion of their home, of whom over 13 million died? After all, the unfortunate men, women and children caught in the siege of Leningrad (which lasted for almost 900 days) endured unspeakable conditions in the same war Londoners had to suffer through. The notion of remembrance illustrated by the classic image of rows of uniform white crosses in the cemeteries of France clearly symbolises that every human life, regardless of rank, social status or age was equal and was represented by identical stones. However, this noble idea is clearly undermined by the collective amnesia of civilian deaths (particularly foreign ones) we have undertaken in this country. Perhaps, through the emphasis on the deaths of combatants, we have decided that the death of one person means more if they had a rifle in their hand and a helmet on their head than if they were simply a civilian casualty. This is further muddied by the question of whether German civilians deserve a place in our hearts next Sunday. Those who had no part in Hitler’s decision to invade Poland in 1939 certainly paid a high price when Russian soldiers ransacked Berlin in 1945 and when the RAF and USAF firebombed the city of Dresden in February 1945, killing between 22,000 and 25,000 German civilians.

This question is of course an open one: every citizen of the United Kingdom who engages in remembrance activities decides on November 11th whose death should be remembered. Many would decide that remembrance should be consigned to national borders, with each country reflecting on their own sacrifices and losses, overseeing their own rituals of mourning. The problem is that this decision may not actually be taken consciously by many people. The iconic red poppy, reminiscent of the flowers which sprouted from the killing fields of Flanders, officially remember only Allied military dead, excluding not only the dead from the opposing side but also the allied and enemy civilians. Therefore, even if you do believe in a purely national form of mourning, the red poppy does not remember the 40,000 British civilians killed in the Blitz.

Enter the white poppy. Contentious to many, the symbol is produced by the Peace Pledge Union and officially states its aims as representing all victims of war, acting as a commitment to peace and challenging militarism in the modern day. As the oldest secular pacifist organisation in Britain, the group is particularly vocal in its condemnation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, often campaigning for demilitarisation and a reduction in defence spending. As a result, wearing a white poppy has often been criticised for politicising the ritual of remembrance, of being too ardent in a time of reflection. The white poppy has also been denounced for its own inclusivity, with many arguing that it facilitates the remembrance of undesirable actors such as the German SS who died in the Second World War through its goal to remember “all” victims of conflict. Indeed, the white poppy does not necessarily play a role as active as its red cousin in contemporary society, as it does not directly benefit wounded veterans or their families. Intended more as a symbol for pacifism, it is strongly opposed to Britain’s military-industrial complex. This is a highly relevant point in light of the fact that the UK is the second highest seller of arms in the world, most contentiously with its dealings with Saudi Arabia, who in turn use these arms to carry out illegal attacks in Yemen.

Whether you choose to wear a white poppy is down to your own judgement, but regardless of this, it shows that the process of reflection, as embodied by the indomitable red poppy we are so familiar with, is not the only one offered in our society. Whether you choose red or white (or both), you should be aware that you are engaging with this debate, showing our form of remembrance to have more variety and choice than it first seems.

Another element of the national discussion on remembrance lies with the thorny issue of the British Empire during the 20th century. Indeed, the label of ‘Great War’ would not have been retroactively assigned to the First World War without the vast colonial holdings of Britain, France and the smaller ones held by Germany. This not only brought the war to Mesopotamia, Africa and the Pacific, but also called for men from across the world to fight on the Western Front, with Australians, Indians, Canadians, Africans and others heeding this call. The Gallipoli campaign between 1915-16 is a particularly harrowing example of this, where ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops were sent to land on the beaches of Turkey and, after 11 months of bitter fighting, eventually retreated with nothing gained and 10,000 ANZAC men lost. Whilst at the time, this was hardly criticised, recent opinion of the long shadow the empire casts over Britain’s history has swung against this, looking with revulsion at an empire which would use men from foreign nations to fight in a war they never asked to be a part of. Remembrance this year should not leave out this element, as regardless of whether you personally disapprove of our colonial past, it is an unavoidable fact that these men who fought for this country deserve recognition for their sacrifice.

As anomalous as it may seem however, some small communities did not fit into the general theme of mourning after 1918. Communities known as ‘thankful villages’ had the  ood fortune of not experiencing a single loss despite sending men to the violence of the Western Front. These communities represent another outlier case in the politics of remembrance, as many have argued that such villages experienced a community-level form of survivor’s guilt: feeling isolated in a country occupied with grieving after the most destructive war mankind had ever seen. Such responses showed the pervasiveness of honour and sacrifice which was (and still is) so integral to the theme of remembrance. Indeed, such communities rarely spoke out about their experience, and historians have only recently begun to fit their experience back into the grander narrative of British memorialisation.

With all these examples of the horror of war, it would also serve us to understand the way in which people in the 20th century carried out the early forms of remembrance we take for granted today. The process of remembrance in small British communities was carried out in a surprisingly autonomous fashion. Communities often raised money to construct local war memorials or even funded the creation of local amenities and institutions which were dedicated to those who did not return. Some hospitals, for instance, owe their existence to these efforts, and memorials have even taken the shape of church clocks and community centres. A five-minute walk from our very own train station will take you to the York Memorial Gardens, opened in 1925 in memory of those who fell in the First World War. Clearly then, the modern sense that memorialisation is only represented by a paper poppy is one that can distract us from other forms of more involved remembrance. Pulling all these seemingly disparate outlier cases together, a challenge seems to be constructed against the safe and comfortable routines we carry out every year on 11th November. Whilst the process of buying poppies and undertaking a two- minute silence is certainly important and respectful, attempting to understand where our culture of remembrance has come from, as well as its limits and flaws, can give us a more complete picture of the real feelings of grief experienced after the outbreaks of violence in the 20th century.

Looking forward into this century however, remembrance in the form that we have come to know it is certainly a familiar feeling for many of us, but we must not allow ourselves to forget why we carry out these rituals. Every action performed in the build up to and on the 11th is done so with consideration of the issues mentioned, and understanding these will certainly provide you with a more holistic experience next Sunday. So I urge you: buy a poppy (whatever colour that may be), visit your local memorial and take an active role in remembrance this centenary year. It promises to be a momentous day in the continuation of this country’s history.

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