102 years after Britain entered (or was it stumbled) into World War 1 on the 4th August 1914 many Veterans have expressed unease at the Poppy, a symbol of the suffering caused by War, being used by some Politicians and Right-Wing groups to promote unthinking Militarism. Some have suggested that the Remembrance ceremonies are glorifying war but we are not. They and the poppies are honouring the Dead which surely is a warning against future wars?
There is a somewhat false debate about red and white poppies, the white poppy having at its centre the word “peace” and being preferred by Quakers and others with strong pacifist instincts. It originated in a request to the British Legion in the 1920’s by the Women’s Co-Operative Movement (who included many War Widows) to have “No more War” on the button at the centre of the poppy. When the British Legion refused it launched its own White Poppy with “Peace” at its centre. However it is sometimes forgotten that the Poppy has strong pacifist roots encapsulated by the original slogan “Never again”, originally it was about remembrance and peace. The Royal British Legion has no official opinion on the wearing of white poppies, stating that it “is a matter of choice, the Legion doesn’t have a problem whether you wear a red one or a white one, both or none at all.”
In the aftermath of World War I there was a great revulsion against war, leading to the formation of War Resisters’ International and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and in Britain the No More War Movement and the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). The League of Nations convened several disarmament conferences in the inter-war period.
No-one would have dared to predict the casualties of World War One. When World War One was declared there were street celebrations in most of Europe’s capital cities. No-one even envisaged trench warfare in August 1914 let alone the appalling casualties that occurred over 4 years of fighting. In August 1914, Ypres remained a fine example of a medieval city. By 1918, it lay in ruins and the surrounding land had witnessed death by the tens of thousands. The Somme and Verdun witnessed appalling slaughter. No-one could have predicted the horrifying consequences of modern weaponry being used together with out-of-date tactics. The grim figures ‘speak’ for themselves. The historian A.J.P. Taylor observed it was the first truly industrialised war and it was industrialisation which made possible the scale of the awful bloodbath as “Defence was mechanised but attack was not.”
The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 35 million. There were over 15 million deaths and 20 million wounded ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. The total number of deaths includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 6.0 million soldiers while the Central Powers lost about 4.0 million.
Lots of people wearing the white Peace Poppy this year. Commemorating the dead, working to end all wars. pic.twitter.com/0pWIEd78od
— Housmans Bookshop (@HousmansBooks) November 5, 2016
About two-thirds of military deaths in World War I were in battle, unlike the conflicts that took place in the 19th century when the majority of deaths were due to disease. Improvements in medicine as well as the increased lethality of military weaponry were both factors in this development. Nevertheless disease, including the Spanish flu, still caused about one third of total military deaths for all belligerents.
“…My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
Everyone who fought in Belgium and northern France had noticed the extraordinary persistence and profusion of an apparently fragile flower: the cornfield poppy, which splashed its blood-red blooms over the fields every summer. It blooms there to this day, on the fields now returned to the farming they were meant for, and from which the bones of the dead are still collected as the farmers’ ploughs uncover them.
— Royal British Legion (@PoppyLegion) November 10, 2016
The returning American ex-servicemen made the red poppy their emblem. It was particularly associated with a poem written by a Canadian doctor, John McCrae (he died of pneumonia in January 1918). His poem begins:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below….
In Britain after the Armistice the weary soldiers came back from the grimness of war to find that life was hard at home too, though in a different way. Many of the men were wounded or disabled or suffering the effects of gas and shell-shock. Many were physically or mentally unable to work; many others found that there were no jobs anyway. The provision made for them by the state was less than adequate. They certainly didn’t get the heroes’ homecoming that they had been led to expect. So ex-servicemen’s societies united in 1921 to form the British Legion. Its purpose was to provide support to ex-servicemen, especially the disabled, and their families, and it was to become one of the most successful British charities ever. There was also outrage about the social conditions and poverty in “A Land fit for Heroes” where many old comrades found themselves homeless. Near me in Aylesbury is Duke of York Terrace built by public fundraising and opened by the Duke of York (later King George VI) in 1928, the first social housing in Mid-Bucks.
The revulsion at the wanton waste of human life and the stupidity of war was widespread in the UK and touched all strata of a then very class ridden society. Indeed Officer casualties were very high in WW1 as officers bought their own trench coats and boots and were easily identified by snipers – it is one of the reasons modern combat uniforms are the same for all ranks. Indeed some of the strongest proponents of “The War to end all Wars” doing just that were former military leaders.
— PWGSC (@PWGSC_TPSGC) November 4, 2016
Before WW1 Major General Robert Baden Powell, the Hero of Mafeking, and founder of the Scout Movement could fairly be portrayed as a flag waving jingoist who organised Scouts on Para-military lines. After the war he shared the horror of his class at the carnage and shed Scout’s Para-military trappings and changed its primary purpose to the promotion of Brotherhood and understanding among young people. This determination that war should never happen again also explains the traction of appeasement and the blind eye many showed to the evils of Nazism in the run up to World War 11.
So there is a growing concern that a gesture intended to remember the dead and ensure wars would never happen again is being subverted into a Drum-Roll of support for militarism and for current campaigns by the red top Tabloids and charities such as “Help for Heroes.” Veterans wrote an open letter to newspapers protesting at the politicisation of Remembrance Ceremonies and the Poppy. Their spokesman said:
“We are concerned that people are trying to take ownership of the poppy for political ends. It is almost as if they are trying to garner support for our boys and any criticism of the wars is a betrayal. That is not what the poppy was all about to start with: it was all about remembrance and peace: never again. The government should be supporting these casualties: they are their liability, not the British Legion’s.”
In fairness to the British Legion I do feel it keeps the focus on remembrance and the plight of those suffering in the aftermath of wars, the jingoistic mood music comes from elsewhere. Its spokesman said;
“There is nothing in our appeal or campaigning which supports, or does not support, war: we are totally neutral. We are not a warmongering organisation. We don’t have a position on war in Iraq or anywhere else. These boys don’t send themselves to Iraq – that’s a decision for the politicians. We help 160,000 cases a year, servicemen and women and their families. We represent widows at inquests; we fight for compensation for victims who have lost limbs. We are in there, up to our elbows dealing with the cost of conflict.”
Certainly on Armistice Day when I viewed the Field of Remembrance organised by the British Legion Poppy Factory at Westminster Abbey and the aftermath of the “Silence on the Square” at Trafalgar Square I felt that the original intentions of the Poppy Appeal still held good. The Field of Remembrance at the Abbey was particularly poignant in the presence of veterans, serving soldiers and their families.
But the price of peace is eternal vigilance and there was a warning of the vested interests of the Military Industrial Complex just beside the Abbey in Westminster Tube Station. Here there was a “message of support” from the worlds’ second largest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, conveniently sited in the underground station bellow Portcullis House where Members of Parliament have their offices and round the corner from the Cenotaph. Making war is a big and highly profitable business; little wonder then that financiers, manufacturers, trade unions and of course the military and now the growing band of support charities are loath to call for peace and disarmament rather that demanding more body armour, tougher boots and more helicopters to rescue the wounded.
I’ll leave the last word to somebody who earned the right to have it, Britain’s last “Tommy”, Harry Patch who died in 2009 aged 111;
“I was taken back to England to convalesce. When the war ended, I don’t know if I was more relieved that we’d won or that I didn’t have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle — thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Herr Kuentz, Germany’s only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?”
See; Farewell Old Soldiers
Let’s instead renew the call; Never again!
Remembering my wife’s great uncle, Edward Kenny and my great uncle James McMahon.
Private Edward Kenny, S/5932, Argyle & Sutherland Highlanders, fell 27th August 1916, Thiepval, The Somme, France.
Private James McMahon , S/43680 , 6th. Bn. Royal Dublin Fusiliers, fell 8th October 1918, Beaurevoir, Aisne, France.
Their stories are told here;
Towards the Somme: A Personal Journey